Last week EU Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen embarked on what they hoped would be an amiable meeting with Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The visit was announced days after Brussels halted previously tabled sanctions against Ankara due to what they said were positive signals on Turkey’s part regarding last year’s tensions with Greece over hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
Apart from rights groups and a handful of members of the European Parliament, no one really cared about the terrible timing of the trip to Ankara, which came only three days after Turkey locked up the country’s foremost human rights defender, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, and less than a month after Erdoğan single-handedly withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a landmark Council of Europe treaty on combating violence against women, against the backdrop of the constantly worsening epidemic of domestic violence in the country.
The meeting, despite the EU side’s best efforts to avoid doing or saying anything that would sour it, took an awkward turn when the host country’s seating arrangement relegated von der Leyen, to her visible bewilderment, to a simple cabinet minister level on par with Turkey’s Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The images raised eyebrows across Europe, particularly from a gender equality perspective, due to the stark contrast it represented with the egalitarian protocol that Turkey granted in the past to Jean-Claude Juncker, von der Leyen’s male predecessor.
Between all the bitter criticism that came from politicians across Europe, many of whom saw the scandal as a rare opportunity to lambast the bloc’s policy towards Turkey that they disagree with, and the avalanche of mockery that the incident triggered on social media, there was one recurring theme that stood out: No one was actually surprised that Erdoğan would do something like that. In fact, most of the backlash was directed at Michel, whose inertia at the scene was described as ungallant and tacit approval of Erdoğan’s misogyny.
Yet, nothing could have better epitomized the state of current EU-Turkey relations than the humiliation the two leaders were served at the lavish palace of Erdoğan, who had been told just two weeks earlier that Brussels would stop at nothing to avoid confronting him. The EU’s decision makers have walked back from a couple of insignificant sanctions on petty petroleum functionaries, which they had agreed upon over substantial acts of aggression in the past, in exchange for the promise of future dialogue. And they have consistently ruled out any sanctions on human rights grounds, a clear hypocrisy when we compare, for instance, the swift action taken for an outspoken xenophobe like Alexei Navalny, and the absolute lack of action over the years-long imprisonment of Turkey’s remarkable progressives like Selahattin Demirtaş, in utter disregard of outstanding European Court of Human Rights verdicts, no less.
Like almost everyone else, I understand the obvious realpolitik challenges at play between Brussels and Ankara, including the need to keep Erdoğan committed to a 2016 migrant deal that positioned Turkey as a bulwark against the unchecked flow of refugees towards Europe and the concerns related to maritime tensions. Even the downgrading of human rights among priority issues is to some extent understandable given Ankara’s clear and complete abandonment of its goal of accession to the EU as a member state, which from Brussels’ point of view relegates it to a simple neighbor.
What I do not understand is the irrational willingness to go all the way to Ankara at such a disastrous time, to have a conversation that could have well been had via videoconference, just to give Erdoğan the photo op that he desperately craves, especially in the midst of the cold shoulder he has been getting from US President Joe Biden, who has still not called him since taking office.
No amount of realpolitik prudence will suffice to change a very simple and fundamental rule that applies not just to Erdoğan but to any bully to be dealt with: You tell them how to treat you. If you don’t give them any reason at all to respect you, they won’t. If you tell them they can walk all over you, that is exactly what they will do. And you can’t possibly expect them to uphold the principles and values that you yourself have thrown out the window altogether.
That is why von der Leyen and Michel’s treatment in Ankara was as fitting as it was embarrassing for both of them. It is the natural and tragic consequence of an unprincipled and purely value-free policy that for years Berlin has been unilaterally dictating to the entire bloc.
* Ali Dinçer was formerly a diplomat at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.