Turkish PM Erdoğan’s gamble in Brussels

Turkish PM Erdoğan’s gamble in Brussels

Whenever a rupture has been expected in the stormy relations between Turkey and the European Union, there has always been a breakthrough at the very last moment.

The number of people who believe there could be a Davos-like walkout during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels, leading to a major crisis with the 28 nation bloc, is not insignificant.

While it was nearly impossible for any world citizen that follows global affairs to miss the incident, let’s recall that Erdoğan stormed out of a panel in Davos in 2009 after a war of words with Israeli President Shimon Peres. And, as he promised, he never went back. He has thus boycotted the World Economic Forum for the past five years. Three ministers will attend this year’s Davos summit, which will start today; on the same day, Prime Minister Erdoğan will visit Brussels for the first time in five years.

He will hold talks with the presidents of the European Council, Commission and Parliament, as well as the leaders of the political groups in the Parliament. Erdoğan’s efforts to increase the executive’s control over the judiciary, a move seen as an attempt to cover up corruption charges against his government, will inevitably be raised. Some expect that as a leader who does not like criticism, there might be a standoff at one point. Some go even further in speculating that this is exactly the kind of opportunity that he will seize to slam the door on the EU and increase his popularity.

There is no doubt that Erdoğan needs a push to boost his popularity. Although I do not have statistics to prove it, I don’t think we need them to assume that his image and support level have been weakened. The local elections at the end of March will show precisely the scale of this loss of support, as it has become quite clear that these elections won’t be about local issues, but rather a plebiscite on Erdoğan and his government. If he were to slam the door on Europe, it is not difficult to speculate that he will receive a hero’s welcome in Turkey, where support for the EU has been low and a majority believes that Turkey should act solo on global and regional issues. Some believe this would gain him additional votes in the March elections.

I am not so sure. Although public opinion polls have consistently shown that large majorities in Turkey want the country to act independently and go solo on international relations (the so called “lonely wolf” syndrome), that does not mean that Turks would approve the country being in constant contention on many fronts. Support for the government’s Syrian and Egyptian policies, where it is at odds with the current regimes, has never been high, and the public has never encouraged a more aggressive attitude; to the contrary, in fact.

Meanwhile, speculations are wary about the effects that a crisis with the EU would have on the Turkish economy. The only time when Erdoğan lost some votes was during the municipal elections in 2009, which came right after the 2008 economic crisis. Again, some people believe that the effects of developments after Dec. 17, and a possible crisis with the EU, will not make themselves felt until March.

Still. There are certain segments of society that are not happy with the economic performance, but they have so far remained loyal to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the lack of an alternative, or because of an expectation that things might get better. But Erdoğan being at war both inside and outside Turkey would dash expectations that the economy will improve in the foreseeable future.

So this could be a gamble for Erdoğan. Will a standoff with Europe gain him more votes that will consolidate his power? Or will it cost him votes that will create a legitimacy problem with his rule? I don’t think he will take the risk.

Yet some believe he has lost touch with reality. What is certain is that Yiğit Bulut, his chief advisor, has lost touch with reality; obviously, if Erdoğan were to listen to him, then expect the worse in Brussels!