Will Erdogan's Turkey bring down the European Union?

Martin Jay
Martin Jay is a veteran foreign correspondent now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as Deutsche Welle TV. Previously he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
Istanbul, Turkey © Murad Sezer
Many have wondered which EU country would start its own Brexit and bring about the collapse of the EU. In the event, it is Turkey which threatens the project with its ‘no confidence’ vote. Erdogan has had enough of the EU.

What is the point of the European Union’s diplomatic corps that costs a billion euro, headed by former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini? Just this week it suffered another massive blow to its credibility, following months of failures which included Israel snubbing its threats and plowing ahead on illegal settlements, not to mention the embarrassment of the EU not being invited even as ‘room meat’ to the Syria peace talks.

It’s as though the EU is falling apart and we’re witnessing the first tremors.

Turkey now stands poised over the frail body of the grandiose EEAS, which the Daily Telegraph reported earlier in the year for wasting hundreds of millions of euro on djinn palaces for absent ambassadors. Erdogan’s latest threat to the EU is two-fold: First, he is calling the EU’s bluff on Syrian refugees. A deal struck earlier in the year for Turkey to hold millions of them within its borders in exchange for a visa-free deal for Turks wanting to visit the 27 nation block has run aground.

Secondly, now the refugee debacle is seen, stripped of its euro-jargon and fancy buzzwords which 200 press officers in Brussels can muster, the wrecked deal has only succeeded in driving a point home to many in Ankara that Europe is no longer its natural geopolitical ally and it needs to think about the East.

This is nothing new. Indeed, on Peter Lavelle’s superb CrossTalk show, a Turkish academic made the same point a while back that Turkey’s future trade and prosperity relies on building relations with China and Russia and other countries in the region, including Iran. Why on earth does Turkey need the EU, after all?

This new, bold move from Erdogan might have been a while in the making as Turkey held on for so long to this dream of EU membership. But finally, the time came when many started asking themselves “at what price?”

Erdogan points to Brexit as a deal breaker in his decision to drift away from Europe’s own ‘Raft of Medusa’ as EU leaders scramble to save its credibility through attempting to create an EU army, in a craven bid to bolster its image on European TV screens. Incredibly, the EU’s answer to its own crisis is that the people of Europe need more EU, as a remedy and not a streamlined version, with fewer powers and scrapping the Lisbon Treaty which gave birth to the EEAS in the first place.

Erdogan is saying that, following Brexit, other EU countries are wobbling and that if one of them leaves the EU, or even just leaves the eurozone single currency, then the whole project will collapse like a house of cards. He might be right.

Economists have been worried for some time about Greece leaving the eurozone and how that would impact the markets; Spain, like the UK, has a former global trading history and also has strong incentives to revert back to the peseta in that it could wipe out its debt and reinvest in its tradition markets in South America.

And right now, the last thing the EU needs is someone who garners so much media attention to dismiss the EU project as a failed state in its own right.

But it is not really Brexit which has turned the Turkish leader against the EU. It is more a failure of diplomacy on the EU’s side. The EEAS is a shambles of a diplomatic corps which has simply not said the right things at the right time to the EU leader to assure him that the deal is a winner for him.

And who’s idea was it just a couple of months ago to send the two German MEPs – the President of the EU parliament himself and his bellowing sidekick – who both scolded Turkey and kept silent after its failed coup? Despite their groveling trip recently where they tried to butter up Ankara, few doubt that they had both hoped the coup plotters would have succeeded. Mogherini’s visit to quickly patch up things a week later only made it worse.

EU diplomacy is a mythical beast, which, like the black cat in the dark room, actually doesn’t really even exist. For two reasons, chiefly. One, London, Paris and Berlin never had the confidence to hand over any real foreign policy powers to Brussels; and secondly, Mogherini herself doesn’t have the charisma to woo the Middle East’s leaders. It’s really that simple.

Yet in reality, it was Trump’s election which was the final nail in the coffin for Turkey and the EU continuing their tawdry affair. Trump stands for putting both the EU and NATO in line and for building better relations with Russia. He has no patience for the wet dreams and foibles of EU leaders like Juncker. He has simply refocused the priorities, not only for Turkey but for the region and the world.

Turkey is now going to enjoy better relations with the US and will probably get its coup plotter 75-year-old cleric Fethullah Gulen extradited by a Trump administration. He no longer needs worry about the Americans messing up the Middle East even more through whacky ideas about emboldening the Kurds or continuing with the ridiculous obsession of regime change in Syria.

Erdogan now sees clearly that it’s only Washington and Moscow which matter, and he can even score more points from both by discrediting the EU as of little relevance on the world stage. Ironically, it will now be Turkey who will argue the Brexit cause as Ankara’s position now is to remain in a status coveted by Theresa May’s government in London: a non-EU member who has open trade with EU but none of the financial burden. It’s important to remember that most middle-class Turks get visas to visit the EU quite easily.

In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if Erdogan delivers on his threat to open the sluice of human misery and let two million Syrian refugees experience the EU dream themselves, with many heading straight to Germany – a country which is the most prosperous EU state, but one which will also be looking for scalps when the Turkish leader pulls the lever.

The role of the EEAS may well be put into question, but few, in reality, will argue for it to be scrapped although losing Turkey is unquestionably a failure of its bureau.

Erdogan recently said European leaders never saw Turkey as a future member.

"From time to time, we see insults directed at me, claims that there was no freedom of expression in Turkey. Meanwhile, terrorists prance around in French, German and Belgian streets. This is what they understand of freedom," Erdogan added.

When asked if nothing encouraging was emanating from Europe, Erdogan said, "It is impossible to comprehend them." What did he expect from Brussels? Clarity and integrity?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.