Turkey’s problem with Europe is not just about Macron

In September, the Turkish state-run TRT news published a number of articles looking at the decline in diplomatic relations between France and Turkey.

“Despite Macron's relentless tirades against Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the common view within Ankara's policy circles is that "it is just Macron who has problems with Turkey," not the French public”, Ufuk Necat Taşcı, a Middle East and North Africa relations analyst, stated.

This seems like wishful thinking, as the Turkish government’s problems with the European Union go much further than Macron, a leader who wants to act as a lightning rod for discontent within the EU towards Turkish foreign policy in order to stamp France’s authority on the bloc’s foreign policy.

With the UK having left the EU, France and Germany are left as the bloc’s two major powers, and the two nations have generally taken a good cop, bad cop approach towards relations with Turkey. Acting as a champion for the concerns of other EU powers like Greece gives France greater authority within the EU. 

‘France’s East Med steps threaten NATO’s unity’, complained Taşçı in another article for TRT. The projection embodied in this view of the decline in relations between the two countries is confirmed later in the article, where Taşçı quotes ‘Ankara-based security expert Ali Bakeer’ who says “Macron’s internal problems should stay internal and not exported to the region in the name of leadership. With this involvement, Paris is threatening the unity of the EU and NATO, and empowering Russia’s role in the region”.

Apparently it only takes one to tango in this relationship of mutual distrust. Turkey has been sitting there passively, and has not been contributing to this diplomatic dispute. Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, which NATO leaders say threaten the integrity of NATO weapons systems, apparently plays no role in this. Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric towards NATO member Greece has not threatened NATO unity, apparently.

And now, of course, the hot headed rhetoric has come to the point where Erdoğan, criticising the French government’s response to the murder of teacher Samuel Paty last week, suggested that “Macron needs mental treatment”. Macron had responded to the brutal murder in a speech where he suggested that some of France’s 6 million Muslims wanted to form a ‘counter-society’ and warned of ‘Islamist separatism’. 

‘How could France treat us like this? France and Turkey have been allies for 500 years. Don’t forget that we saved France from the Habsburgs when Francis I was captured by Charles V’, Erdoğan’s media supporters like Taşçı complain in the same article. Well, firstly, the Holy Roman Empire has not existed for 200 years and there is no European rivalry between aristocratic dynasties which would require European powers to seek a diplomatic alliance with Turkey.

When Francis I sought to ally with Suleiman the Magnificent, it was out of pragmatism. Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor, king of Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Burgundy and parts of Italy, surrounded France and posed a threat to France’s territories. Francis and Charles hated each other so much that Charles personally challenged Francis to single combat a number of times. After the Battle of Pavia (1525), Francis was captured by Charles’ forces and imprisoned for a year, before being released after making concessions, and after an ultimatum by Suleiman.

French culture played a prominent role in the modernisation of Turkey during the period of the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century, where French advisors helped the Ottoman sultans to modernise their bureaucracy. A whole generation of Ottoman civil servants was trained in French, the European lingua franca of the 19th century, resulting in the Turkish words for many modern inventions and practices being direct imports from French. 

Importantly, the French alliance with the Ottomans also allowed France to act as protector of the large Christian communities living within the Ottoman Empire. This again no longer applies. In fact, France’s large Armenian population encourages France to act as the protector of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, which pushes French foreign policy to take Armenia’s side in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The commercial advantages of the Franco-Ottoman alliance were also important, allowing France to play a bigger role in Mediterranean trade as it competed with Venice. Turkey lacks the trading power as an export market for European goods which the Ottoman Empire enjoyed, so there is less commercial reason for France to have a close economic relationship with Turkey than there was 500 years ago.

Then there is the withdrawal of the United States from its traditional role as hegemonic power within the West and more broadly in the Middle East. The more the U.S. declines its services as a mediator within NATO, the more countries like France will step into the breach and aim to stamp their own authority on world politics.

So this is not about Macron as an individual, but about French foreign policy more generally, which would have taken a similar shape whoever was President. There is no doubt that Macron seems to relish his Napoleonic role as a leader of Europe at large, but Turkish policy advisors should be more realistic about why their relationship with France has soured.

Calling a domestic political opponent ‘mentally unwell’ might be a common rhetorical tactic for Erdogan which nobody considers particularly unusual, but when he does this to world leaders of countries Turkey is a NATO ally of, it sends the signal that Turkey’s government is aggressive and untrustworthy. 

Turkey has a point in its concerns about the ‘maximalist’ Greek claims to maritime territory around Kastelorizo, but this issue is not going to be resolved by angry words or gunboat diplomacy. The danger is that by heightening tensions with France or Greece, the prospects of a military conflict rise, and the splits within NATO could lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the alliance. 

As much as Turkey may want to be nostalgic for its traditional alliance with France, it also has its traditional rivalry with Russia to consider. As Turkey and Russia square up on opposite sides of conflicts from the Caucasus to North Africa, Turkey may find that its position as a NATO power is more important than a temporary disagreement in its 500-year alliance with the French.