On Thursday December 10 the European Council failed to impose any meaningful sanctions on Erdogan’s Turkish regime. Those of us who stayed up until the early hours of Friday 11 hoping for some form of words that would be congruent with the strong call of the European parliament to impose “tough sanctions” were as disappointed as we were unsurprised.
Reports leaking out from the meeting suggest that it was, as expected, the persuasiveness of Angela Merkel and the German presidency that prevailed, despite the “heated discussions” which apparently took place. Chancellor Merkel’s line was that it is better to wait and see what president-elect Biden’s incoming administration will do. There was strong backing for this, it seems, from Spain and Italy which, coincidentally, like Germany have heavy investments in Turkey.
One explanation of the reluctance of EU leaders, despite Erdogan's continuous provocations, to impose tough sanctions is that Europe's financial institutions fear a possible collapse of the Turkish economy. German newspaper Die Welt wrote that Spanish financial institutions' exposure to a Turkish collapse was $62 billion. That exposure is $11 billion for German banks and $8.7 billion for Italian banks. That means lenders from these three EU countries are vulnerable to a combined $80 billion loss
Those investments do not just include those from financial institutions, which of course would be exposed if Erdogan were to take reprisals following any proper sanctions from the EU bloc. These three countries supply arms to Turkey. The United States, Italy and Spain were the top exporters of arms to Turkey from 2015-2019, according the Sweden-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a leading conflict and armaments think tank. No wonder that the latter two were so keen to jump in behind Germany defer the issue of sanctions to the next meeting in March (in politics, an age away).
Germany is building no fewer than six submarines for the Turkish navy. However much Merkel tries to defend the imminent delivery as an honouring of contractual obligations, some German federal politicians are now calling for at least a postponement. It is eminently clear that submarines will increase Turkey’s capabilities to harass and intimidate NATO allies Greece and Cyprus, and for that reason alone delivery should be cancelled. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the summit that EU leaders planned to discuss weapons exports to Turkey with allies in the NATO military alliance following a Greek push for an arms embargo on Ankara. Turkey is a member of NATO.
As Erdogan looks at ‘Europe’ in the guise of the European Council he will see a disparate, divided, duplicitous group motivated ultimately by self-interest, despite all the talk of unity. He knows he will have little to fear from a college that cannot even rally behind Greece and Cyprus, heed the counsel of president Macron, or reflect the wishes of its own parliament. Erdogan’s policy of playing cat and mouse with the European Union, and of employing the Machiavellian principle of divide and rule, is likely to continue – with Europe as the mouse.
Far more damaging to Erdogan’s interests is the announcement made yesterday by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo that sanctions will be imposed upon individuals linked to Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries for the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. Congress took this action under CAATSA, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which has also been applied against China and Russia. The United States has acted where the European Union prevaricated and fudged.
Erdogan has threatened to retaliate. Perhaps he will mobilise part of his army of Islamist supporters operating throughout Europe. The capabilities of the Turkish nationalist ‘Grey Wolves’ is of particular concern to EU members such as Austria, who banned them last year. Of equal concern could be the growing infiltration of an anti-western Islamist worldview into mainstream institutions. It was reported recently that 200 teachers were sent from Turkey to teach primary school children in France about culture. Inspectors found evidence of covert inculcation of Islamist teachings. Erdogan has the second largest military in NATO, and he has thousands of willing proxies throughout Europe.
The EU is adopting an approach of talk first, sanctions later whereas the US had acted the other way round. President elect Biden’s arrival in the oval office will bring change. Whether that change leads to the EU and US working more closely together to exert sufficient pressure on Erdogan, or to more cat and mouse, will be seen soon. Biden has talked tough about Turkey, but even if there are two mice, the advantage is still overwhelmingly with the cat.