Denis MacShane / Dec 2020
Next year 2021 sees two big historic commemorations in the south-eastern region of Europe where different civilisations, faiths, and peoples have found it so hard to find their way to permanent peaceful co-existence over many centuries.
For Greece, 1821 was when the Greeks rose up against their Ottoman overlords to demands the right to live as a Greek nation free of Turkish control.
They were supported by all the romantics of west and northern Europe with Lord Byron at their head as he went to support the Greek demands for nationhood. He died in Greece in the middle of Greek war of independence. His body was taken back to lie in state attended by giant crowds in London before burial at his family home in the Midlands.
For Turkey, 1921 was when the post Ottoman Kemal Ataturk rose to prominence as his nationalist armies defeated the Greeks and forced their expulsion from the Turkish mainland. This ended the “Megali Idea” – the great idea or dream of a Greece restoring a Byzantine empire from the Adriatic to the fertile coastal regions and cities of Turkey’s Aegean coastline.
Now 2021 threatens to be the year which will enter European history when Greek-Turkish relations once again come to the boil and drag in super-powers like the United States and Russia as the core weakness of what might be called “Megali Europe” – the great EU idea is exposed
That weakness is the absence of an effective European foreign policy for its border regions especially those across which armies of refugees and economic migrants seek to cross to gain access to a better, safer life inside the European Union’s nation states.
The European Council meets 10/11 December and can show leadership with a clear statement that Turkey's future status in Europe is under threat unless the country's leaders agree to work with not against wider EU and European interests and values.
Europe has consistently misread Recep Tyyip Erdogan. I was there as the UK Europe Minister when he was first encouraged to see Turkey as a potential EU member state. In the first years of the 21st century he was viewed as a Turkish version of a west European Christian democrat politician. Muslim democracy was all the vogue. He was pro-business, firmly in Nato, the women of Istanbul and the great coastal cities did not wear the veil, or even a headscarf. Publishing and newspapers were lively.
Greece and Turkey had struck up a new relationship following the so-called “Earthquake diplomacy” initiated by Greece’s social democratic foreign minister, George Papandreou, after the two countries were hit by bad earthquakes and sent teams to help each other citizens.
Top European politicians like Germany’s Joschka Fischer and France’s Michel Rocard argued for a new rapprochement between the EU and Turkey. Boris Johnson, a passionate Turkophile, encouraged me to write pro-Turkey pieces for the London Spectator.
But we got Erdogan wrong, badly wrong. He is a master politician and plays the national card better than Poundland populists nationalists in Western Europe. More important he is a profoundly religious man, a devout Muslim. It is not just parts of the old Ottoman empire he wants to restore but more importantly Turkey’s central role as a promoter and defender of Islam.
A European foreign minister told me how at a standard bi-lateral meeting at the September UN General Assembly between his boss and Erdogan, 35 of the allotted 45 minutes for the exchange was taken up with Erdogan talking about religion and Islam.
He barely disguises his attachment to the Muslim Brotherhood, a deeply conservative Islamist sect founded in Egypt nearly a century ago dedicated to replacing royal rule and British influence with a rigorously Muslim society.
It is why Erdogan hates the current military rulers of Egypt who deposed a Muslim Brother, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. In 1924 Kemal Atatürk abolished the Caliphate – the role of the Ottoman Sultan as the religious leader of global Islam. Erdogan is often described as a new Ottoman Sultan. He has built a mock Versailles presidential palace outside Ankara and his family have become massively rich during his presidency. But he should also be seen as a new Caliph. He has converted two of the jewels of Byzantine orthodox church architecture including the cathedral of Saint Sophia in Istanbul into mosques and gone to pray there.
He also has a delicate relationship with the military, especially after the failed coup of 2016 which came close to killing him. He has unleashed the Turkish military by land, sea and air in all directions – from air support for Azerbaijan, military incursions to destroy Kurdish enclaves in Syria, despatch of mercenaries to seek the overthrow of the UN recognised government in Libya, and naval patrols in the East Mediterranean which are open provocations in Greek territorial waters.
This is the thesis of “Mavi Vatan” or “Blue Homeland” – the idea of Turkey exercising influence if not control over the waters of 3 seas – the Black and Caspian seas and the eastern Mediterranean including numerous Aegean Sea Greek islands.
Europe has been strangely quiescent faced with Turkey’s aggressive military deployments. Only France’s President Macron has raised the alarm when one of Erdogan’s warships almost bumped into a French frigate in the eastern Mediterranean. Donald Trump saw an ally in the bombastic Erdogan and Boris Johnson’s Turkophilia combined with UK withdrawal from EU foreign policy making means London is no longer a player.
In fact there is plenty that the western democracies can do. Turkey has broken its Nato treaty obligations by buying a Russian air defence system. The EU can examine if Turkey’s membership of the EU Customs Union any longer adds value. EU anti-money laundering regulations could examine Turkish banks. Joe Biden has suggested more political support for political forces in Turkey including the new young Mayor of Istanbul who defeated Erdogan’s candidate, the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, to win control of Turkey’s most important city.
The Turkish currency is in free fall and Erdogan in a humiliating climb-down has been forced to sack his son-in-law as finance minister as inflation has taken off and high interest rates are crippling Turkish business – the core base of support for Erdogan's AK Party.
He is now vulnerable and the moment is right to try and stop his bullying and threats to European stability on its eastern frontiers and the security of Greece.
The European Council meets 10-11 December. With Biden about to take over now is the time for the EU to discover whether it has a foreign policy or not.