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Erdogan’s great game: Soldiers, spies and Turkey’s quest for power



This is the first part of a series looking at Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions, from his renewed push in Africa and the fringes of Europe to his troubled relationship with the EU.

In Baku’s Freedom Square last month, thousands of marching Azeri soldiers in fur hats and braided coats celebrated their country’s victory in the Caucasus — and the man who made it possible: Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Invited as guest of honour, the Turkish leader looked on as drones he supplied to Baku as it battled to regain lands lost to Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh were given a prominent place in the military parade. “Today is a day of victory and pride for all of us, for the whole Turkic world,” said Mr Erdogan, surrounded by Turkish and Azeri flags.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, top left, with Ilham Aliyev. president of Azerbaijan, at a military parade in Baku last month © Roman Ismayilov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mr Erdogan’s decision to throw his full weight behind Azerbaijan even as western powers called for a ceasefire after a fresh outbreak of fighting last autumn was the latest manifestation of his increasingly muscular foreign policy stance, characterised by uncompromising rhetoric and the ready use of hard power. 

Over the past five years, Mr Erdogan has launched military incursions into Syria and northern Iraq, dispatched troops to Libya and engaged in naval stand-offs with Greece — interventions that have riled Turkey’s Nato allies, reignited old rivalries and generated new foes. 

Turkey military map: Turkey’s hard power drive, countries with a Turkish military presence

In recent weeks, as Mr Erdogan has come to terms with the US election defeat of his friend Donald Trump — and the need to lure back foreign capital to address Turkey’s mounting economic woes — he has said he would like to “turn a new page” with the west.

But it remains unclear whether Mr Erdogan is willing or able to compromise on the issues that plague Turkey’s relations with the EU, the US and Middle Eastern states — or whether the newfound conciliatory language will soon give way to renewed acrimony.

“There are small things [that Turkey has done] that could be considered an olive branch, but nothing substantial,” said a European diplomat. “If you look at the issues where we fundamentally disagree, both sides have the view that the ball is in the court of the other. So it’s very hard to go anywhere.”

Turkish soldiers in Taksim Square, Istanbul, in July 2016. An attempted coup by rogue military factions marked a rupture in the country’s dealings with the rest of the world, say analysts © Sedat Suna/EPA

The failed coup that changed Turkey

The 66-year-old Turkish president, whose party swept to power in 2002, has long sought to cast himself as a visionary who will — in the words of historian Soner Cagaptay— “make Turkey great again” both at home and abroad.

But a bloody attempted coup by rogue military factions in 2016 marked a rupture in Turkey’s dealings with the rest of the world, analysts say. It left Mr Erdogan even more suspicious of the west, pushed him closer to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, forced him to forge new political alliances at home and enabled him to take unprecedented control of the Turkish state.

In a speech three months after the attempted putsch, Mr Erdogan said the country would no longer wait for problems or adversaries to “knock on our door”. Turkey, he said, would instead “go and find them wherever they make their home and come down on them hard”.

Mr Erdogan at times plays to his religious conservative base by casting himself as leader of the Muslim world but also draws heavily on nationalist imagery and language. He likes to say that his nation is undergoing a sahlanis — a “rising” or “rearing up” — on the world stage.

Chart showing Erdogan has expanded Turkey’s diplomatic footprint, change in the number of embassies and consulates since 2002, height of bar = total number of embassies and consulates, 2020

Diplomats and analysts warn the strategy carries great risks, both for the economy and relations with regional and global powers. While 10 years ago, the guiding principle of Turkish foreign policy was “zero problems with neighbours”, Turkish analysts now joke that the new mantra is “zero neighbours without problems”.

Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy is described by his critics as “neo-Ottoman”, in reference to the empire that spanned southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa and preceded the modern republic. Turkish officials say their country is simply protecting its interests. “When France intervenes, it is just France — no one calls them Napoleonic,” one said.

The approach has come at a cost. “I don’t think Turkey has been this isolated in its history,” said Sinem Adar, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “There is an expanding front of countries that are confrontational toward Turkey.”

Kurdish demonstrators hurl rocks at a Turkish military vehicle in November 2019 during a joint Turkish-Russian patrol on Syria’s border with Turkey © Souleiman/AFP via Getty

The purge, a president and a centralised state

The 2016 coup attempt, and the purge that followed it, allowed Mr Erdogan to take greater control of the armed forces. He also forged an electoral alliance with the ultra-nationalist party MHP, adopting its hawkish rightwing outlook on national security, especially Kurdish separatism.

“They have a similar idea, which is that Turkey must rise. It must increase its power,” said Evren Balta, a professor of international relations at Ozyegin University in Istanbul. “Both the AKP and MHP [also] share this basic idea that Turkey is under attack from inside and outside.”

At the same time, the transition in 2018 to a presidential system weakened the role of the country’s foreign ministry, traditionally the home of mandarins who saw Turkey’s natural orientation as towards the west. 

Many are critical of what one former ambassador terms a reliance on “soldiers and spies” rather than diplomacy. On foreign trips, Mr Erdogan is rarely seen without intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and defence minister Hulusi Akar at his side.

Hulusi Akar, left, Turkey’s defence minister, and the country’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, right, wait to attend talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in August 2018 © Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The overseas adventurism has also had little pushback from political rivals. While the Republican People’s party (CHP) — established by Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose motto was “peace at home, peace in the world” — has criticised “undiplomatic language”, the party has appeared reluctant to come out against policies that have proved popular with the public.

Mr Erdogan, who most analysts believe wants to remain in power for as long as possible, has used foreign policy for domestic political gain — going as far as to compare the German government to the Nazis and to advise the French president Emmanuel Macron to seek “mental treatment”. This attitude, however, has not gone down well in European capitals. One EU diplomat accused Turkey’s leader of acting like “a schoolyard bully”.

Map showing Turkey’s diplomatic missions worldwide

Terror, refugees and an international backlash

Mr Erdogan’s drive to make Turkey a regional power — reflected in a dramatic expansion of Turkey’s diplomatic ties with the Middle East, Africa and Latin America in the mid-2000s through trade and aid — quickly became fraught.

The country’s hopes of joining the EU faded amid mistrust and accusations of bad faith on both sides. A plan to build stronger ties with its Arab neighbours backfired as popular uprisings swept across the region. The Syrian war spilled into Turkey in the form of terror attacks and the arrival of millions of refugees. Turkish military operations in Syria and Libya — and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood — pitched Ankara against a powerful Arab alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Emmanuel Macron, right, president of France, and Mr Erdogan during a press conference in Paris in January 2018. The Turkish leader’s approach has not gone down well in European capitals © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Now Europe despairs at the decline in human rights in a country that is technically still a candidate to join the bloc. Washington is fuming at Mr Erdogan’s decision to buy an S-400 air defence system from Russia, which last month triggered long-awaited US sanctions. 

Turkey’s relationship with newer partners is not straightforward either. His ties with Mr Putin are complex and often fraught, as made clear when 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria last year in an attack that the US blamed on Moscow. 

Still, Mr Erdogan has chalked up some successes. Turkish support turned the tide of the civil war in Libya. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara’s backing of Azerbaijan has exposed the limits of Russian influence in the Caucasus.

The first batch of equipment for a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system at Murted air base in Ankara last July © Turkeys National Defense Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Economic woes and softer rhetoric

The turbulent foreign policy has deterred much-needed foreign direct investment and, combined with concerns about Mr Erdogan’s management of the economy, been a source of pressure on the Turkish lira. The German carmaker Volkswagen suspended — and later cancelled — a plan to build a new factory after an international outcry at a Turkish assault on Syrian Kurdish forces in 2019.

Critics say that, for all the bombastic rhetoric, Turkey’s antagonistic foreign relations harm its interests. Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of Istanbul think-tank Edam, said: “The way I would judge the success of foreign policy is whether it helps Turkey to better protect its national interest and whether it helps Turkey to ensure more sustainable economic growth. On those criteria, it’s not a big success.”

Line chart of Foreign Direct Investment inward flows as a % of GDP showing Foreign investment into Turkey has slowed

The perilous state of the country’s $750bn economy — exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis — triggered a shake-up in November that resulted in the departure of Mr Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak as finance minister.

Since then, and with the election of Joe Biden as US president, Mr Erdogan has made overtures to the west. In a video call with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on Saturday, Mr Erdogan said that “Turkey’s future is in Europe” and called for greater co-operation on issues including migration and trade.

The Turkish president has long been a pragmatist willing to make tough choices if necessary to sustain his hold on power. But some analysts suspect Mr Erdogan will be unwilling to make the compromises required to improve relations with Nato allies, in particular the US.

“I think that the goal of having an independent, strong foreign policy — whilst staying within Nato — will remain,” said Alan Makovsky, a former US state department official now at the Center for American Progress, a think-tank. “Maybe he’ll temper the rhetoric but I don’t think he’ll temper the vision.”

Additional reporting by Michael Peel, Simeon Kerr and Max Seddon

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European Commission upgrades economic forecasts




The European Commission has sharply raised its economic forecasts for the coming two years, as an accelerating vaccination campaign helps the eurozone recover from the historic blow delivered by the pandemic.

The euro area will expand by 4.3 per cent this year and 4.4 per cent in 2022, Brussels said on Wednesday, compared with previous forecasts for 3.8 per cent growth in both years. As a result, all member states are now expected to regain their pre-crisis output levels by the end of next year, following a historic 6.6 per cent slump in 2020.

The stronger outlook was driven by the rising vaccination rates and the prospect of lockdowns easing across the region, as well as improving export demand driven by a global rebound. Brussels for the first time fully factored in the impact of the €800bn Next Generation EU economic relaunch package, which is expected to begin paying out in the second half of the year.

“The shadow of Covid-19 is beginning to lift from Europe’s economy,” said Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economics commissioner. “After a weak start to the year, we project strong growth in both 2021 and 2022. Unprecedented fiscal support has been — and remains — essential in helping Europe’s workers and companies to weather the storm.”

Europe slid into a double-dip recession early this year amid renewed lockdowns and a shaky start to the vaccination effort. However, evidence has been mounting more recently that the economy has “moved up a gear”, according to the commission, which cited improved business and consumer sentiment surveys.

Further easing of containment measures combined with the early payouts from the recovery fund should mean economies would accelerate in the third quarter — including those with big tourism sectors, which should benefit from the return to “quasi-normality of social activities over the summer”, according to the commission.

Stronger global growth, driven in part by the US stimulus packages and improved growth in China, will also help lift the EU’s export sector and contribute to the recovery. The broader EU economy will grow 4.2 per cent in 2021 and 4.4 per cent in 2022, according to the forecast, also an upgrade from the February outlook. The bloc’s unemployment rate will hit 7.6 per cent this year before heading back down to 7 per cent in 2021.

Spain, which was the hardest-hit EU economy last year, losing more than a tenth of its output, will grow 5.9 per cent in 2021 and 6.8 per cent in 2022, according to the new outlook. Italy is set to expand by 4.2 per cent this year and 4.4 per cent next.

Germany, which suffered a much smaller 2020 contraction, could grow 3.4 per cent in 2021 and 4.1 per cent in 2022. France is tipped to expand by 5.7 per cent this year and 4.2 per cent next.

The outlook next year will be supported by the highest public investment levels as a share of gross domestic product in more than a decade. That will be driven in part by the Next Generation EU package, which is meant to start paying out in the summer once member states get their recovery plans signed off by the commission.

In total, the six-year programme should pay out about €140bn of grants over the two years covered by the commission’s forecasts. That should deliver a 1.2 per cent of GDP uplift, according to the outlook.

The crisis will still continue to exert a massive strain on public finances, however, with the overall eurozone deficit set to rise to 8 per cent of GDP this year. That is predicted to halve next year to 4 per cent, but the legacy of the vast government spending programmes will still loom large. The overall euro area public debt-to-GDP ratio will remain above 100 per cent this year and next, the commission said.

EU member states face a tense debate later this year over how to rapidly pare back their stimulus programmes and whether to reform the bloc’s fiscal rules, which are set to remain suspended until 2023.

Among the risks to the outlook, the commission said, was the possibility that governments would decide to start paring back their economic support packages too soon, undermining the recovery. The continued effectiveness of vaccines and the evolution of the pandemic will also play a critical role in determining whether the EU’s upgraded forecast proves justified.

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No, ‘hyperinflation’ is not here




There’s a lot of concern out there about inflation right now. Including, unsurprisingly, here in Germany. And where not just talking about the Bund yield. This is this morning’s hot take from state broadcaster ZDF:

For non-German speakers, the headline reads ‘Fear of hyperinflation’.

The article is not entirely unreasonable, focusing on the pressures we’ve seen build up in producer prices over the course of the pandemic. As markets this morning are all too aware ahead of an important US print Wednesday, we are likely to see broader consumer price inflation surge in the coming months.

We’re betting that it’ll be a temporary blip. Round about this time last year, the West Texas Intermediate oil contract went sub zero. Twelve months on, we were always likely to see some dramatic CPI readings simply as a result of the slump in price pressures that happened when the pandemic first struck.

To boot, take away stimulus cheques and furlough schemes, and the labour market on either side of the Atlantic is nowhere near strong enough to trigger the sort of wage-price spiral that saw inflation surge into the double digits in the US and UK in the 1970s. Even in Germany, where manufacturing unions are still relatively strong, companies like Volkswagen say they don’t need to pay their workers more. Those are workers who did not get a pay rise in 2020, nor will they get one this year either — though they will see a 2.8 per cent bump from 2019 levels in 2022.

But our main point is this: Even if the price pressures seen in supply chains do spread more widely, and even if higher CPI readings do endure, raising the spectre of hyperinflation — which conjures up the cash-in-wheelbarrows images witnessed in the 1920s to many here — is completely overblown.

The article itself notes that hyperinflation is a phenomenon where prices shoot up by more than 50 per cent. We’re nowhere near that sort of situation — even over the next few months inflation readings are likely to remain in the single digits. To suggest otherwise is nothing short of scaremongering.

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The EU is trailing China’s trade distortions all round the world




This article is an on-site version of our Trade Secrets newsletter. Sign up here to get the complete newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Monday to Thursday.

Hello from Brussels, and welcome to the first edition of the new and improved Trade Secrets.

We’re still feeling the reverberations from the US’s announcement last week supporting, in principle, a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization. The EU’s incredibly indignant that it’s been outspun and made to look like the bad guy, and is letting everyone know about it. The problem is that, being the EU, it’s unable to convey a quite simple and entirely reasonable message — it’s fine to talk about patents, but tech transfer and exports are the main thing — without a bit of a cacophony and strange references to Anglo-Saxons.

The babble managed to overshadow some quite big news at the EU-India summit over the weekend. As the Financial Times predicted last week, Brussels and Delhi launched (or technically renewed) talks on a trade deal, plus ambitious notions about co-operating on digital connectivity, geopolitics and so on, plus an investment treaty of the kind that’s gone down so well since the EU signed it with China. Speaking of which, today’s main piece is on the EU’s determined campaign to create legal tools to take on Chinese trade distortions, complicated by the fact that the problem keeps changing shape.

Charted Waters takes a look at trade flows over the past decade.

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New answers to the ever-changing China question

There’s been a finely tuned humming heard around Brussels over the past few years, like a high-performance engine being run at speed. It’s the legal brains of the European Commission designing new “autonomous” (unilateral) tools to counter what the EU regards as the unfair trade and investment distortions produced by Chinese state capitalism. (They don’t say China, but that’s what they mean.)

Whether you support the campaign’s underlying philosophy — free-traders are sceptical about it — the process is impressive to watch. Frankly, we wouldn’t want the lawyers of the trade and competition directorates after us. The latest contrivance was wheeled out of the hangar last week, in the form of a subsidies instrument to be used against state-supported foreign companies operating in the EU.

Assuming it gets adopted, and depending on how it’s used, it’s a big deal, bringing competition tools to bear on international trade. Essentially, it extends the reach of the EU’s state aid regime abroad where foreign handouts distort the European market. It can be applied to market competition, mergers and acquisitions, and public procurement. 

The anti-subsidy tool is the latest in the following list of China-unfriendly initiatives implemented or proposed by the EU over the past five or so years. If you’re taking notes: sharpening up trade defence instruments (anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties); allowing those duties to be used against companies subsidised by the Chinese government but exporting from another country; tightening up screening of inward foreign direct investment (FDI) for national security reasons; developing an anti-coercion tool (aimed more at Donald Trump’s administration, to be fair) to use against foreign governments acting illegally; producing a toolbox for member states to manage risky entities (Huawei) from 5G networks; banning imports made with forced labour; and requiring European companies to exercise “due diligence” in eliminating labour and environmental abuses from their supply chains. Quite a list.

You have to admire the commission’s stamina and ingenuity, finding ways to tackle one alleged distortion after the other. You’d also think that, what with China and the EU becoming ever closer trading partners, Brussels’ stance would somewhat rattle Beijing. But it’s hard to conclude that the EU’s tools, along with a bunch of similar actions by the US and other countries, have pushed the Chinese growth model towards a market economy. In fact, President Xi Jinping’s going the other way, with a “dual circulation” growth strategy, one of the aims of which is to use heavy government intervention to build up high-tech capacity in China in an insulated domestic market.

Why? Well, some of the explanations are political. These tools are housed in the commission, but some require EU member state acquiescence to create and/or use. Powers over national security FDI and 5G screening, for example, reside at national level: China can pick off individual countries with carrots and sticks. 

Some explanations are institutional. The ability to use anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties against Chinese companies based in third countries has been tried just a few times (glass fibre fabric and reinforcements from Egypt and steel from Indonesia and India) and only partially succeeded. Antidumping lawyers grumble that the commission makes it too hard to bring new cases.

Some are practical. The subsidy instrument will involve complex investigations, trying to apply existing EU state aid disciplines to the myriad opaque ways that China hands out money to its companies. The thresholds for action also have to be set high enough not to deter benign investments, especially since a foreign business attempting to acquire a company in the EU may also have to file separate national FDI notifications.

But one of the hardest issues is that the creation of the instruments generally lags behind the evolution of the Chinese trade and growth model by a few years. While Europe’s trade defence tools were being strengthened against exports from China, Beijing was instead building industrial capacity abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative. Then, just as the EU started to apply those duties against Chinese companies outside China, Beijing was rethinking the Belt and Road Initiative and reducing its foreign exposure. The subsidy tool arrives several years after Chinese FDI into the EU started falling and many European governments became disenchanted with China. You can very plausibly argue the EU now needs more rather than less Chinese FDI.

As the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment shows, China is less interested in getting market access in the EU than securing European inward investment in intellectual property-intensive sectors such as electric vehicles, and we can guess what for. The agreement has provisions to prevent forced technology transfer, and the EU has brought cases on the issue at the WTO, but winning dispute settlement cases rather than wielding a unilateral tool is a slow and uncertain business.

This isn’t a counsel of despair: there are still plenty of Chinese exports and investment in the EU that can be regulated, assuming that’s a good idea. But the EU’s critiques of the latest phase of Chinese development — dominating advanced markets through huge government support and weaponising trade for geopolitical ends — will be even harder to address than the previous ones. And that’s before we get to the question of human rights.

We’ll take a deeper look at the EU’s anti-subsidy initiative in future newsletters: there’s a lot to examine. For now, we’ll just say that there’s been a lot of painstaking legal engineering going on, but the devices that result are already looking a little dated.

Charted waters

This is about as big a picture on global trade as you can get. The data, from the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, track trade flows over the past ten years and show two things.

Line chart of 2010=100 showing World trade has recovered from the pandemic, but not Trump

First, the good news (for those of you who are fans of globalisation at least). The recovery from the early months of the pandemic has been remarkable, with flows now at their pre-Covid mark.

This is a point that we don’t think is made often enough. While semiconductor chip shortages and high shipping costs often make headlines (including, we confess, in Trade Secrets), global manufacturing and logistics should be given an awful lot of credit for ensuring that the rebound seen over the past three quarters has been so strong.

The bad news is that broader geopolitical tensions were clearly affecting flows in the run-up to the pandemic. We don’t see those tensions dissipating soon, so expect growth to stutter even if we manage to get Covid under control. Claire Jones

Trade links

Welcome to our new Trade Links section, a round-up of the best content we’ve come across over the past few days.

Today’s must-read comes from the European Centre for International Political Economy and covers the trade implications of the radical shift in technology turning manufacturing giants, such as Volkswagen, into software developers. It’s well written and has some great charts that help support the case that, when it comes to trade and technology, the future is now. 

We’d highly recommend this FT piece, which takes an in-depth look at why the Serum Institute of India, the world’s top vaccine maker, is struggling. One of the reasons being that it’s at the sharp end of the vaccine trade wars. Also worth a look is this Big Read from Andrew Hill, explaining why the UK’s services sector is taking a big hit from Brexit. This is a massive deal. And — as Lionel Barber, formerly of this parish, notes — it is a story too few are talking about given that services makes up a whopping 80 per cent of UK output. Expect this to change, and the services sector’s woes to rise in prominence, as economies on both sides of the Channel begin to reopen. 

This morning’s edition of the FT’s excellent Europe Express newsletter focuses on the transatlantic spat over the vaccine waiver, which Mehreen Khan concludes will do little to help poorer countries in desperate need of more jabs. For those of you interested in European policy and politics beyond trade, sign up here for a daily guide to what’s driving the European agenda, available for premium subscribers Monday to Friday at 7am CET. Nikkei Asian Review looks at ($ — subscription needed) why bureaucratic timidity led to the withering of Japan’s pharmaceuticals industry, leaving it reliant on foreign countries for vaccine supplies. For fans of the chip story (who isn’t?), Nikkei has dug into how Korean electronics group Samsung lost its lead to Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC. 

Elsewhere, the International Economic Law and Policy Blog asks what if the US can’t create consensus around a vaccine waiver. (There are some interesting recommendations for further reading in the comments too.) This week’s Economist delves into the topic ($) of vaccine donations. While Covax has made almost 50m vaccination donations, this is well short of its target. One of the reasons for that being the tragedy unfolding in India. China, meanwhile, has doled out 13.4m doses to 45 different countries, and India more than 10m vaccines. Alan Beattie and Claire Jones 

Any recommendations on articles to include in Trade Links? Send your tips here.

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