Future depends on how Germany responds
A major diplomatic row has been averted after Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel the ambassadors for 10 Western nations — the US, Canada, New Zealand and several EU members — for demanding the release of the philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been jailed without conviction since 2016. On Monday, after the controversy caused the Turkish lira, already under pressure, to hit a new low, the US issued a statement saying it would maintain compliance with Article 41 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which requires, among other things, non-interference in a country’s internal affairs. Other embassies have followed suit, marking a considerable triumph for Mr Erdogan. But the controversy highlights the scratchy relations between Turkey and the West, the EU in particular, since the thwarted 2016 military coup against the president that saw a deepening of authoritarianism, including the arbitrary arrest of thousands of critics such as Mr Kavala.
Although Turkey joined the customs union in 1995, talks on accession to the EU have long stalled following the regime’s deteriorating human rights record. Mr Erdogan himself appears to have lost enthusiasm for the project, not least because non-accession gives him the flexibility to expand his political base domestically and pursue a foreign policy apparently designed to revive his country to its former Ottoman glory. He has, thus, taken to harrying EU members Greece and Cyprus over new oil and gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean, for instance, and, despite being a NATO member with more troops than Germany, the Netherlands and France combined, has opted for the Russian S-400 missile shield, designed to shoot down NATO aircraft. Yet, geopolitics dictates that neither the EU nor Turkey can dissociate themselves from each other. The EU is Turkey’s largest import and export partner and its main source of investment. Turkey also enables the EU to reduce its dependence on Russian gas by providing the conduit through which Central Asian gas flows to Europe. And, it has played a critical role in shaping a cynical deal to staunch the flow of refugees from the Syrian civil war into Europe in return for €6 billion. Now, he stands to gain from a similar role as the tide of Afghan refugees approaches the region.
In a way, the EU’s ability to deal with the maverick Mr Erdogan has implications for the stability of the union, specifically when it comes to the two similarly inclined members on its periphery, Poland and Hungary. Both nations ruled by ultra-conservative right-wing parties draw considerable political mileage from openly challenging the supremacy of the EU law and flouting rulings from the bloc’s highest court. Brussels has responded by blocking some €50 billion in funds to tackle Covid-19, and other pay-outs could be stalled later in the year. Whether such a blunt instrument can work against the tide of xenophobia is an open question — it failed, for instance, to keep the UK in the bloc. Much depends on how the German leadership responds, since the EU is very much a Berlin-led project, not least because it must account for powerful business interests. With lax labour and environmental laws and low wages, both nations are major destinations for German business investments. Without Chancellor Angela Merkel’s adroit and stabilising hand, Project Europe hangs perilously in the balance.