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