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Erdogan’s great game: The Turkish problem on the EU’s doorstep

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This is the second part of a series exploring Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. The first part of the series is Erdogan’s great game: Soldiers, spies and Turkey’s quest for power

Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost walked away from the EU before Turkey’s effort to join it had officially begun.

In Brussels for an EU summit decision on whether to launch accession talks with his country, Turkey’s president was furious at the preconditions. “I got a message that he had sent word to the airport: ‘start the engines, we are going home’,” recalls Peter Westmacott of the December 2004 showdown, which he attended as British ambassador to Ankara. He remembers frantic efforts involving Tony Blair, then the UK’s premier, to “unscramble” the dispute. The Europeans managed to assuage the Turkish leader’s concerns and within a year negotiations had begun.

More than a decade and a half later, Mr Erdogan’s Turkey is further away than ever from joining the EU. After the bloc’s leaders last month ordered the preparation of new sanctions against Ankara over a dispute in the Mediterranean, relations have lurched into deeper crisis, without an obvious plan for how to revive them.

Escalating disputes in areas from human rights to maritime claims have stoked fears of conflict and destroyed the trust of many European countries and Brussels officials in their south-eastern neighbour. At the same time, mutual dependencies in areas such as trade, migration and counter-terrorism mean neither side is yet prepared for a complete rupture — leaving both stuck in a painful embrace.

A Turkish police officer patrols the dock at Dilovasi where the drilling ship Yavuz, scheduled for dispatch to the eastern Mediterranean, lies moored © Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

After years of an ad hoc approach, European leaders are due to hold talks in March on their Turkey strategy, including new sanctions.

“The entire relationship requires modernisation,” said Ilke Toygur, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute, of the deterioration in EU-Turkey ties. “The issue is, no one has developed a plan B.”

Mr Erdogan has shifted to a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks, partly to attract foreign capital to prop up his nation’s ailing economy. On Tuesday, the Turkish president used a meeting with EU ambassadors to hail plans for renewed talks with Greece and said that he wanted to create a “positive agenda” in Turkey’s relations with Brussels.

But many EU diplomats, scarred by years of spats, are sceptical of a profound change in the relationship. One said he expected the Turkish president’s more aggressive approach to “resurface before March”, when EU leaders make a final decision on the tougher financial sanctions they have long avoided because of Turkey’s economic woes.

“The strange but impeccable logic has been: ‘don’t kick the guy while he’s down, because he might do even crazier stuff’,” the diplomat said. “We have never tackled the structural issues and said to Erdogan: ‘If you keep on behaving like this, there will be economic consequences’.” 

A supporter of the Justice and Development party (AKP) holds an Erdogan poster as others wave the national and EU flags © Mustafa Ozer/AFP via Getty Images

Fraught from the start

The EU’s relationship with Turkey during the Erdogan era has always been complex — and sometimes contradictory.

The 2004 go-ahead for Ankara to become an accession candidate took place in the shadow of Turkish unhappiness with Cyprus’s admission to the bloc earlier that year. The Mediterranean island was allowed to join even though its northern part is under a decades-long military occupation by Turkey that no other country recognises. Talks to resolve the so-called Cyprus question have repeatedly foundered, most recently in 2017. 

But the mutual economic attractions between the EU and Ankara are also obvious — and reflected in a customs union between the two that turned 25 years old last month. Turkey was the EU’s fifth-largest trading partner, export market and provider of imports in 2019, according to official bloc data. The EU is Turkey’s number one import and export partner, as well as the biggest source of inward investment. 

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

The ties between the two powers have been deepened by regional upheaval. Turkey has become an important partner in counter-terrorism co-operation, particularly as it is the main conduit for Isis fighters from Europe to move in and out of Syria and Iraq. 

The arrival of more than 1m migrants in the EU in 2015 added another dimension to the links between the bloc and Ankara. The two agreed a deal in March 2016 under which the Europeans agreed to pay Turkey billions of euros to host refugees in exchange for taking back migrants who had travelled from its territory to the Greek islands.

A new dispute over migration last year encapsulated both Turkey’s significance to the EU and the friction between them. Thousands of migrants travelled to the border with Greece in March after Mr Erdogan followed through on a threat to “open the gates” to refugees.

“If Erdogan really wanted to, he could do more [than he did then],” admitted one European diplomat. “We are all very aware of this. European public opinion is very sensitive on this issue and Erdogan knows that.” 

Migrants wait in the buffer zone at Turkey’s border with Greece © AFP via Getty Images

Clashes, spies and proxies

EU member states have also clashed with the Turkish leader, particularly after the 2016 attempted coup against him. Mr Erdogan was angered by what he saw as insufficient European condemnation of the putsch, which left 250 people dead. 

In 2017, the Netherlands barred the Turkish foreign minister and expelled another minister from the country after they sought to campaign on Dutch soil on a constitutional referendum taking place at home. Turkey arrested citizens and dual nationals from Germany — including a Die Welt journalist — as well as from the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria as part of a vast crackdown that followed the failed coup. Several European countries have voiced concern over activity by Turkey’s intelligence service on their soil and the use of state-trained Turkish imams to spy on the diaspora.

Lately France has emerged as Turkey’s main EU antagonist, denouncing Ankara’s activities in conflicts from north Africa to Nagorno-Karabakh. President Emmanuel Macron lamented in 2019 that Nato was suffering “brain death” because of Turkey’s failure to consult its fellow alliance members before launching a big military operation in northern Syria.

Mr Macron has also accused Turkey of “criminal” behaviour in Libya’s civil war, where Ankara has sent weapons and Syrian mercenary fighters to back the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. France has been a supporter, at the very least politically, of renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who triggered a civil war by launching an offensive against the Tripoli administration in 2019. Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan has insulted Mr Macron and called for a boycott of French products over Paris’s response to deadly Islamist terrorist attacks in France last year.

The risk of harder measures

The EU’s most pressing dilemma is whether to take tougher action over Turkish energy exploration in contested Mediterranean waters. Cyprus, Greece and their allies have pushed for so-far modest sanctions to be significantly intensified.

But many European countries remain sceptical of a tougher response. Even the main Turkish opposition Republican People’s party has warned against it. 

Unal Cevikoz, foreign policy adviser to the party’s leader, argued Brussels should have acted “much earlier, not at the level of sanctions but to give some signal to Turkey that this was not going right”. 

“That has not happened and now they’re obliged to take harder measures,” added Mr Cevikoz, who said he had urged European diplomats to steer away from tougher measures for fear that they would “cause Turkey to drift apart from Europe”.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has played a crucial part in stopping the rift between the EU and Turkey from turning into a total rupture. She was the leading architect of the 2016 migration deal. Berlin is also conscious both of the importance of Turkey to German companies and of Germany’s large population of Turkish heritage. 

A big moment will come later this year when Ms Merkel steps down from the premiership she has held since 2005 — the year the now-dormant EU accession talks with Ankara began. The question is whether her successor and other European leaders will still feel that the bond with Mr Erdogan’s Turkey is too strategic to break. 

“This government won’t be around for ever,” argued one senior German official of the Erdogan administration. “Maybe things will change afterwards, maybe they won’t. But Turkey will always be very important — and we don’t want to lose it.”

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin



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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation

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India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”



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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China

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America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.



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