The geopolitical sharks are moving in for the kill. It is now apparent to all but the most gormless that the European Union – never having economically bounced back from the euro crisis, or mastered its refugee crisis – is dead in the water. The logical follow-on from such a realisation is for the world’s stronger powers to first mock the EU’s pretensions, and then to ruthlessly take advantage of its chronic weaknesses. And this is exactly what we’ve seen from Turkey in recent months.
The simple reason that no one in elite foreign policy circles wants to talk about the embarrassing transformation of the Turkish government of Putin mini-me President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from close ally into something very different is that there is so little that can be done about it. For it is certainly true that Ankara is now almost entirely off the reservation, in terms of serving in its old Cold War function as a broadly reliable and important Western ally.
Turkey has become a frenemy of the West, the wonderful new phrase correctly denoting a country that is seemingly friendly despite possessing a fundamental dislike of or rivalry with the West. With the passing of the Cold War, essentially a two-player game of checkers, has come the multipolar era, a time of chess, where simple categories like “ally” and “enemy” no longer explain the world we live in.
This shift is revealed by the headline decision in Ankara to “support” the West in terms of the refugee crisis. Chancellor Merkel’s hapless, entirely unplanned, open welcoming of Syrian refugees has led to around 1.1m displaced people entering Germany in this past calendar year alone.
Suffice it to say, the useless German Chancellor was not bargaining for this when she made her initial generous announcement. But Turkey, more than any other country, has seized upon this chaotic situation, quickly understanding that, if the EU is to master this sudden existential threat to its old governing order, with the survival of the Schengen open border system in Europe itself in question, Ankara is central to its efforts. And Erdogan is willing to help… for a price.
First, in the run-up to the decisive 1 November 2015 parliamentary election – where Erdogan’s AKP party again emerged as the decisive force in the country, buttressing his dream of establishing a strong presidential system in Turkey (with himself in the critical role) – the Turkish President put an end to Europe’s tut-tutting about his authoritarian instincts.
Instead, Erdogan revelled in humiliating the German Chancellor, who was forced to come to him in the days before the election, cap in hand, asking for help with the refugee crisis, lending his electoral cause vital legitimacy at exactly the moment when overall support for the divisive President had been waning.
The EU has gone eloquently silent about Erdogan’s ongoing muzzling of the press, hauling his many rivals through the courts, and his increasing disregard for the rule of law. He has glaringly illustrated that previous European concerns about Turkish domestic political rights amount to nothing, now that Europe has tremendous need of the place.
Merkel’s improvised and highly-amateurish refugee policy amounts to this: externally to bribe Turkey to keep as many refugees away from Europe as possible, while internally hectoring other European states (in the name of “solidarity”) to take a greater share of the overall influx (something that in practise they have up until now entirely failed to do), all this in an effort to head off the first real dissension to her rule in a decade.
Turkey has been promised an initial payment of €3bn to serve as the EU’s night-watchman (with at least €3bn more to come) as well as increasingly visa-free travel in Europe for its own people, and renewed discussions about Turkey joining the club itself. These are all concrete takeaways the Sultan can cite domestically as triumphs of the new, independent Turkish foreign policy. Given the country’s significant turn for the worse economically, the money is especially handy. The visa programme is a tangible concession that Erdogan can point to as one in which average Turks can all share.
And while no one I know thinks Turkey will ever join the EU, in Erdogan forcing the club to go through the motions of enhancing talks, he is showing the world in propaganda terms that it is Turkey, and not the EU, which presently is calling the tune in their complicated relationship. Everyone can now see what has been obvious to a few of us for a long time: the EU is dead.