Turkey’s Erdogan might be strong at home but is isolated in the West

Sunday 28/05/2017
Cold shoulder. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L), British Prime Minister Theresa May (C) and US President Donald Trump attend a working dinner meeting during the NATO summit in Brussels, on May 25. (AP)

London - Fresh from a referendum victory granting the Turk­ish presidency sweep­ing new powers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Er­dogan is stronger than ever at home but abroad, in meetings with NATO allies and EU leaders, he remains isolated with US President Donald Trump ignoring his entreaties to halt US support for Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).

With the second biggest armed forces in NATO and borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, Turkey is an im­portant member of the 28-country alliance with airbases from which the US-led coalition warplanes carry out air strikes on ISIS in their cam­paign to drive the extreme jihadists from the cities of Raqqa and Mosul.

Turkey, however, has exasper­ated NATO by its diplomatic flirta­tion with Russia and its blocking of cooperation with 41 non-member countries due to Austria’s opposi­tion to Ankara’s decades-old bid to join the European Union. Ankara has also become embroiled in a spat with Germany after stopping Ger­man members of parliament visiting German troops in Turkey.

EU leaders have accused Turkey of not respecting human rights and cracking down on the opposition. Nearly 50,000 people have been arrested over alleged links to last July’s failed coup and 150,000 state employees suspended or sacked.

EU countries were deeply angered by Erdogan accusing Dutch and Ger­man leaders of behaving like Nazis for refusing to allow Turkish ref­erendum rallies in their cities. The reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey, which Erdogan said he would support, is a red line for the European Union and would mean an immediate end to Ankara’s bid to join the bloc.

Erdogan has accused the Europe­an Union of not holding up its part of a deal to open talks on new chapters on Turkey’s accession process in re­turn for Ankara’s stopping the mil­lions of Syrian refugees it hosts from heading to Europe.

“We are not trying to break away from the European Union but the bloc should fulfil its responsibili­ties,” Erdogan said at a news confer­ence before leaving for Brussels and the NATO summit. The European Union should not see his country “like a beggar,” he said.

“What we will be discussing with them is: What do you want? Why are you still waiting? It’s been 54 years,” he said, referring to the time since Ankara first tried to join what was then the European Economic Com­munity.

While encouraged by the election of fellow populist Trump, Erdogan has not fared much better with the United States. Earlier in May, on his first visit to Washington since Trump became president, Erdogan failed in his stated goals of persuading the US leader to drop American support for Kurdish-led groups fighting ISIS in Syria, speeding up the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for July’s failed coup, and securing the release from a New York jail of a Turkish-Iranian busi­nessman charged with violating US sanctions against Iran.

The visit was instead overshad­owed by video footage of Erdogan’s bodyguards attacking and kicking pro-Kurdish demonstrators outside the Turkish ambassador’s Washing­ton residence.

Erdogan has more fully taken over the reins of Turkish foreign policy in the last two years, sidelining other influential figures in the rul­ing party such as former Prime Min­ister Ahmet Davutoglu and former President Abdullah Gul. Few are left within the party who have the stat­ure or will to stand up to Erdogan, analysts said.

Erdogan’s irascible rhetorical style has endeared him to the masses in Turkey but his repeated taunts that foreign leaders should “know their place” have had the opposite effect abroad.

Erdogan’s visit to Washington and his broader foreign policy were like watching a train crash in slow mo­tion, wrote Ilhan Tanir, a US-based Turkish journalist who works for the staunchly secularist Cumhuri­yet newspaper, which has seen sev­eral of its editors jailed on charges of supporting terrorism.

“The train crash is happening be­fore our very eyes,” Tanir wrote on the ozguruz.org website. “No one is there to say stop, there are just those pouring more petrol on the flames… and competing to tell the world to “know its place.”

After meeting Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Eu­ropean Council President Donald Tusk tweeted: “We discussed the need to cooperate. I put the ques­tion of human rights at the centre of our discussions.”

Since Turkey became a candidate for full membership of the Europe­an Union in 1999, European leaders have seen the accession process as a way of binding Ankara into demo­cratic values and respect for human rights. The union applauded as Er­dogan in his early years in power stripped the military, which had car­ried out three coups since 1960, of political influence.

However, with just one of the 35 EU negotiating chapters concluded in the 12 years since the accession process began, Turkey’s progress towards EU membership remains stalled, though neither side appears to be the one to walk away.

Erdogan’s meetings with EU lead­ers in Brussels were “not a signal that we are coming back to business as usual,” Reuters quoted a senior EU official as saying. “It’s a sign that we want to continue talking.”

Erdogan has threatened to call a referendum to ask the Turkish peo­ple whether they want to keep try­ing to join the European Union but has not yet done anything to bring such a vote about.

“The EU seems to be in a mood as if waiting for Turkey to pull out and we say: If there is such a situation then you make this decision and we will not make it difficult for you,” he said.