The European Council is meeting again from December 10 to 11 and tensions with Turkey will be at the top of the agenda. In particular, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the European policy towards Turkey can be found at the top of the External Relations agenda of the summit.
EU leaders will discuss possible responses against Turkish provocative actions in the East Mediterranean region over the last few months, as per the conclusions of the previous European Council in October. Despite speculation about the potential EU reaction, what has been gathering even more attention lately is the ongoing escalation between France and Turkey.
Tensions between France and Turkey have not only come via traditional diplomatic means, but also on a personal level between Emmanuel Macron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The harsh rhetoric lobbed between Erdogan and Macron and personal verbal attacks indicate that Ankara and Paris are bracing for a clash, with potential domestic and international impacts on the political and security landscape.
From les Gilets Jaunes to Erdogan’s Red Vests
In late October, Erdogan bluntly criticized the French President and urged Turkish people to boycott French products, as the tension between the two countries rises. Paris has protested Turkish unilateral actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and candidly taken the side of Athens with regards to the ongoing Greek-Turkish disputes.
At the same time Macron’s strategy to deter radical Islam within France through the closure of Islamist associations, prosecution of suspicious individuals, targeted home searches and constant monitoring of social media content has further angered the Turkish President and given him leverage for directing anger at France and Macron.
This time, Erdogan has been even more aggressive in his comments, calling Macron a dangerous burden for France and advising the French people to get rid of this “trouble” soon. Erdogan also stated that the Yellow Vests — the famous Gilets Jaunes movement which is seeking economic reforms in France through popular protests — could promptly turn to “Red Vests”, implying that Ankara is able to mobilize thousands of Turkish and Turkish-supporting people within the French territory to cause significant disruption in the country via massive protests.
Once again Erdogan has played the neo-Ottoman card, emphasizing that the self-proclaimed Turkish position as a leading power in the Muslim world globally can be employed to shift the political balance and the security apparatus of other countries.
Macron’s Response and Competing Interests Overseas
The French President has chosen to be careful in his response, highlighting that the mutual respect should be a fundamental part of the relations between two countries. He totally condemned the use of personal insults against the head of a sovereign state.
Meanwhile, Macron’s reforms to underscore the secular character of the country are taking place in France, in a major state-coordinated effort to distinguish religion from politics. Macron has publicly endorsed and personally announced this campaign, being targeted by his critics — and especially by Turkey — for allegedly adopting a discriminatory policy against the Muslim community of France.
While Erdogan is threatening that Ankara could directly meddle into the domestic affairs of France, a much more tangible Turkish interference is possible in some traditional French strongholds across Africa. Despite the universal disapproval of the colonial legacy of the major powers of the past, one cannot question that Paris still holds a prominent role in the political, security and economic developments of the Economic Community of West African States – or ECOWAS.
Turkey has been gradually and methodically building up its presence and expanding its influence in several states of West Africa and the Sahel. As the political and security challenges in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are multiplying, France is consolidating its military operations accordingly; in the meantime Turkey is reshaping its role in the region, emerging as an alternative power to the French presence, which a considerable number of the nationals from the respective countries, occasionally blame for their long-term grievances.
An unpredictable — yet promising — strategy for Turkey would be to combine well-tested soft power methods such as sending humanitarian aid to countries in need across the region, with the deployment of unconventional means, like giving covert support to radical militias that undermine the French efforts for security.
While Ankara’s influence in the Sahel can by no means be compared to the Turkish footprint in Libya, Erdogan’s aspirations are limitless. It is clear he is willing to internationalize the Turkish-French standoff, spanning from the heart of Paris to the mainland of West Africa, where crucial French interests are at stake.
Germany is Unlikely to Stand up to Turkey
Returning to the EU developments, it should be expected that France will escalate pressure against Turkey this week as we approach the European Council meeting. Paris will call for decisive action against Turkey, focusing on the unilateral unauthorized Turkish activity in the Eastern Mediterranean and hoping that the EU will finally impose some substantial sanctions on Ankara and will implement a stricter policy; however apart from Greece and Cyprus — the EU member states who are most affected by the Turkish recent actions in the Eastern Mediterranean — the rest of the European powers are not expected to make any essential changes to the stance they have adopted so far.
With regards to sanctions the most favorable plausible scenario for France, Greece and Cyprus would be an arms embargo on Turkey from the EU, a step that would immediately and drastically undermine the most important factor of the Turkish Foreign Policy: the capability and battle readiness of the Turkish Armed Forces.
Even though Germany has mentioned in the past that sanctions would be discussed if Ankara kept not complying with the EU calls, the possibility of a German agreement on substantial sanctions should be ruled out. On the contrary, as Germany is about to complete its six-month presidency of the EU Council, there will likely be a major effort — even if it prompts a public disagreement with France — to block any serious action against Turkey, underscoring the German approach since the tensions started in the Eastern Mediterranean in July.