On October the 23rd, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that he had told his foreign minister to declare ten ambassadors persona non grata, after they asked for the release of an activist jailed for years. Seven of these were ambassadors from NATO allied countries, including the US and European heavyweights France and Germany. The crisis, which threatened to be the most severe between Ankara and its allies since Erdoğan came to power, was eventually eased, but nonetheless, it was indicative of Erdogan’s stance towards the West.
The events that made Erdogan turn against the West
In November 2014, speaking for a committee of the Islamic Cooperation Organization in Istanbul, Turkish President Erdoğan made some shocking remarks for Western ears. He said that foreigners are unable to solve the problems of the Middle East. The President then added the following: "They [Westerners] don't like us [Muslims]. […] They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die. How long will we stand this fact?" He then called for Muslim unity as "the only condition to overcome the crisis in the Islamic world". This declaration marked a turning point in the domestic and foreign policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Turkish acronym AKP) under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Chronology is particularly relevant here because Erdoğan's speech came after a few crucial events connecting to subsequent evolutions. The first was the toppling of the Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi (3 July 2013), who had been supported by the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan's support for the Brotherhood and for Morsi has negatively affected Turkey's relations with Egypt and other Arab states after 2013. This was followed inside Turkey by a brutal police crackdown (August 2013) on the massive anti-governmental protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. In the wake of those events, the same Turkish president praised the police action, addressing them with the words "my police" (benim polisim), which soon became a book title. The third major event was the graft case (17-25 December 2013) in which high-ranking officials from the AKP-Erdoğan regime (including one of the President’s sons) were allegedly bribed with millions of US dollars. The AKP majority dismissed a parliamentary inquiry into the case and the prosecutors and policemen who initiated it have either been imprisoned in Turkey, or are self-exiled abroad. They are all accused of anti-government plotting with Fethullah Gülen, former ally turned archenemy of the regime. This became official after the failed coup of July 2016, when the Turkish state initiated an all out war against the rebranded Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization (Turkish acronym FETÖ).
In all episodes above, Erdoğan and his collaborators have blamed "the West" for plotting against Turkey, thus equating the regime with the country and, ever since, subordinating national interests to the regime's imperatives. In effect, the details above represent milestones on the gradual path of the AKP-Erdoğan government from a reformist agenda during the first years in power (2002-2009) to authoritarianism from 2010 onward. The same milestones also mark the metamorphosis of Turkey under this regime from a reliable member of the Euro-Atlantic cooperation structures into an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable actor. Innumerable policy errors also contributed to this situation, eventually delegitimizing the government and limiting its space of maneuver.
Especially after the institutionalization of the executive presidential system, approved by a small margin at a referendum in 2017, the quality of Turkey's economic, financial and political performance has diminished steadily. Economic performance, in particular, has been marred by monumental errors. These resulted in inflation higher than the official 18-19%, (real) unemployment around 28% and the Turkish lira falling to a record low of almost 11.25 lira for one euro on October 22 (it has lost more than 80% in value since 2012). All these translate into a significant degradation of living standards, about 18 million, or 22% of Turks being situated below the poverty line. To these must be added a huge external debt to be paid over the next twelve months and the pressure of approximatively 4 million refugees still hosted by Turkey.
It is therefore not surprising that the government's and Mr. Erdoğan's approval rates have fallen dramatically of late. More than 60% of the population is disappointed with the governmental performance and the executive presidential system. According to a study by Metropoll in September 2021, trust in the person of the President, too, is at a record low (41.4%,) since his first election back in 2014. A KONDA poll also revealed that 64% would consider the re-election of Mr. Erdoğan a negative outcome. It can therefore be said that the current rulers of Turkey experience nowadays a massive legitimacy problem, with consequences yet to be seen in the electoral battles scheduled for 2023. This downfall is nevertheless the outcome of a gradual process, which marked Turkey's policy options and performance over the last years.
Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy
Constantly targeted by corruption allegations and accused of innumerable policy errors, the regime in Ankara has resorted to an ethno-religious nationalism reminding of conservative predecessors. This in turn fueled the agressive foreign policy that inflamated traditionally good relations with Western allies and created new adversaries, especially in the broader Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region. Continuous aggressive involvement in Lybia, Syria and northern Iraq has soured relations with Damascus, Baghdad, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries, together with Russia, France, and the United States. The Syrian adventure also contributed, along domestic factors, to the restart of confrontations with the PKK and a crackdown on Kurdish politicians at home after years of efforts for peace between 2009-2015. Ankara's decisive involvement in the Azeri-Armenian conflict increassed irritiation in Moscow and may provoke unwanted reactions from Iran in the long run. Playing the nationalist card in relations with Greece and Cyprus has also increased tensions in eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean regions. Ankara has even managed to irk India because of numerous official declarations supporting the Sunni Muslim cause in India-Pakistan territorial disputes and concerning domestic developments in India proper, but also for the enhanced military cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan.
Nevertheless, it was Turkey's aggressiveness in the eastern Mediterranean that triggered the most significant counter-reactions, having involved important actors in the region and in Europe. The signing, on 27 November 2019, of the Maritime Boundary Treaty between Turkey and the Tripoly-based government of Lybia, which established exclusive economic zones between the two sides, practically separated eastern Mediterranean from the rest of this sea. The move drew immediat reactions from other countries in the region who saw their interests affected, Greece and Egypt responding with their own maritime boundary deal. Ankara also became increasingly expansionist concerning gas reserves around Cyprus. Aggressive drilling and gas explorations in Cyprus waters drew sanctions from the EU, extended then until November 2021.
Turkey was also excluded from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum established by Cyprus and Greece in collaboration with Israel, Egypt, France, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It is no secret that one of the aims of this forum, which became an international organization in 2021, is to contain Turkey's aggressive expansionism in the region. Despite Ankara's recent attempts to mend ties at least with some of the eastern Mediterranean actors, all wait for concrete steps that the Turkish government never takes. On October 19, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt ended their 9th Trilateral Summit in Athens with a declaration condemning Ankara's actions and stating clearly that, "Turkey's aspirations pose a threat to peace in the wider region."
The fact is that, despite being the smaller actors in the affair, Greece and Cyprus, who are both EU members, have managed to determine Bruxelles to abandon neutrality and take their side. Ankara, on the other hand, has failed to attract supporters to its cause. In the October 2021 Report by the European Commission on EU candidate Turkey, it is stated that the country's "increasingly assertive foreign policy continued to collide with EU priorities under the CFSP, notably due to its support for military action in the Caucasus, Syria and Iraq." Not only that accession negotiations are suspended with Ankara, but also Brussels (hence the EU as a whole) supports green energy projects that aim to diversify supplies to Europe with the participation of almost all states in the eastern Mediterranean except "aggressive" Turkey. It is therefore not surprising that the EU is involved in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as permanent observer, together with the United States and the World Bank Group.
Europe’s response to Ankara’s challenge
The scheme of current and potential energy projects in the eastern Mediterranean is complex and the extraction of gas from the undersea deposits is particularly challenging, technically and financially. To this must be added the global pressure for decarbonization. The EU is more and more involved in the most viable projects in the long term for gas and, especially, clean electricity grids. This trend favours initiatives in which most countries in the region are or are getting involved, except for Lybia, Syria and, again, Turkey. While Lybia and Syria are still devastated by civil wars, it is involvement on the wrong sides in those civil wars, along other things, that pushed Turkey outside the regional cooperation schemes, in the box of the undesirables. In case the regime in Ankara does not rennounce its stance, especially where it collides with "EU priorities", Turkey risks being left out of all long-term projects in the region, that is, projects that will certainly outlast the country's current rulers.
One should also read in this logic the recent agreement concluded by Greece with France, followed by another one between Greece and the United States. The Athens-Paris pact allows for the parties to come to each other's aid in an event of external threat. It is anyone's guess who that "external threat" could be. Of note, some analyists read the pact as a contribution by France and Greece to Europe's strategic autonomy in the wake of Australia's AUKUS deal with the US and Britain. Such views miss Greece's very pressing regional concerns. While there is a long way to concrete forms that European strategic autonomy may (or may not) take, Athens faces unprecedented challenges from Turkey at this very moment. Besides, in relation to the pact with France, the US State Department expressed strong support for "Greece's role in creating stability in the region". Even more, Secretary of State Blinken described the recent US-Greek agreement on renewing defense cooperation as conceived to "allow for Greece and the United States to advance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond". It seems that Athens has managed to rally powerful allies for its cause precisely against Ankara. Indeed, both pacts have irritated nationalist leaders in Ankara who fail to grasp that their own decisions have created the general disconfort with Turkey in the region. It must be added at this point that Greece has already concluded a security accord with the UAE (Novembebr 2020) and one with Egypt (May 2021). Most recently, a framework agreement was also concluded with the UK on 25 October 2021, for ”strong security and defence co-operation”.
With the project of European integration blocked by its own choice and isolated in the region by its own actions, the current regime in Ankara seems trapped in a "vs. EU" situation. The immense difference in size between the two parties leaves neverthless little chance for Turkey's rulers to gain anything from a confrontation with the world's biggest economic block. Brussels, for its part, seems to have finally abandoned its previous flexibility in bilateral relations. The conclusions of the annual report on Turkey recently issued by the European Commission could not be clearer: "Turkey's accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing due to Turkey moving further away from the European Union." It is very significant that, in a section dedicated to the candidate country's foreign policy, at page 117 in the report, the European Commission names Turkey as "occupying power" in Syria for the first time. It is therefore equally significant that, following a meeting of the EU foreign ministers on October 18, the Union's top diplomat Borrell also announced that new sanctions are being prepared in response to Ankara's aggressive moves in Northern Cyprus and eastern Mediterranean. It may be far too much to say that we are witnessing the emergence of a "EU vs. Turkey" situation in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the developments briefly sketched here indicate that most actors in the region and, most importantly, the EU itself, seem to have grown weary indeed of Turkey's unpredictability and impulsivity.
A ship whose steering is severely damaged
Just two days after Erdogan announced that the ten ambassadors would be deemed persona non grata, he backed down on his threat, claiming that they have “taken a step back from the slander against [Turkey]” and “will be more careful now”. Some pundits interpreted Erdoğan’s initial bellicosity towards the ambassadors as an attempt to avert attention from his country’s economic problems. Nonetheless, as the domestic situation goes from bad to worse, it is likely that Erdoğan will not move away from this pattern of trying to mobilize his supporters by using foreign “threats”.
And that is despite the many chances the regime in Ankara was given over the last years to change course and return to peaceful relations with its old allies. With so many opportunities missed and still erring catastrophically in domestic and foreign policies, Turkey may look to many analysts like a ship whose steering system is severely damaged. Let us all hope someone wise holds the wheel somewhere, in the command room.