The EU Helped Create the Erdogan of Today. Why the Shock and Awe over Sofagate?
Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan frequently makes global news headlines. That is only to be expected from the leader of a G-20 country and a major regional power. Unfortunately, though, many of the headlines in question appear to be over highly questionable and regrettable comments, statements, or situations on part of or involving the ever more ambitious Turkish leader.
That has been the case this month when during a visit in Turkey for a meeting with Erdogan the heads of two of the three top institutions of the European Union – European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ended up in a “surprising” and “embarrassing”, and, to be perfectly honest, highly humiliating situation
Considering the EU’s history with Erdogan in the past more than 20 years, however, what is actually surprising and embarrassing is not the actual situation at hand but the fact that it has been considered a surprise and an embarrassment. It’s almost as though the EU is encountering the Turkish leader for the first time. Or it’s the first team Erdogan has managed skillfully to take advantage of the EU for his political goals while also humiliating it in the process.
In the playout of the “situation”, Erdogan’s team had set up only two chairs for three top-ranking leaders in the room where the Turkish President had received Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel.
Michel seated himself alongside Erdogan while Von der Leyen was “left hanging”, i.e. standing, wondering, and embarrassed (why many think she is the one who should be embarrassed is a whole other topic).
Von der Leyen was then seated on a sofa besides Erdogan and Michel, and across from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, clearly not corresponding with her rank. This “diplomatic protocol incident” has been named “Sofagate,” aptly or not so much.
The fact of the matter, however, is that “Sofagate” is just another episode of what should be named the EU’s gigantic and very long-term Erdogan blunder, in which arguably the most democratic entity of the planet has allowed itself again and again to be duped into trusting a highly unpredictable foreign leader who probably hates it quite passionately.
When outrage erupted in Western media over “Sofagate”, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu later claimed that the seating arrangement had been made according to what the EU had requested. Certainly.
What a great way this Sofagate incident has been for Turkish leader Erdogan to humiliate the European Union, the West – and women, for that matter — and to saw a rift and internal conflict between two of the top EU institutions!
Just fabulous if you are the leader of an aspiring world power with a self-esteem that’s through the roof, strong Islamist leanings, a great pining after the might of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, a quest to avenge and restore the empire, and a drive to make the world shiver at your feet. Simply fabulous.
A lot of the comments and criticism after the Sofagate meeting in Turkey have focused on the actions of European Council President Charles Michel, although not very justifiably so.
Many media on the left side of the political ideological bias (we in Europe also happen to have that unfathomable “media political bias” thing as they do in the US of A) have lambasted him as a “sexist” for seating himself before Von der Leyen.
Of course, the same outlets and commentators would have lambasted him as a “sexist” if he had gotten up and offered her the seat. Michel himself admitted he was actually apprehensive of ending up in the latter situation.
So once the EU got “sofa-played” and Michel had been set up by Erdogan, the President of the European Council would have been branded as a “sexist” either way, never mind it wasn’t he who arranged the seating. (Apparently, thousands of people have even signed a petition for Michel to resign over this. How about a petition in favor of having decency and common sense, or not allowing foreign autocrat to exploit self-imposed hindrances to humiliate the West, or of forcing Erdogan to resign, for that matter??)
Such flawed logic stemming from previously unimaginable extremes of present-day Western political correctness and identity politics (an idea which once wonderfully started as “being nice to people” before extreme, as Monty Python’s actor John Cleese recently remarked) is just another one of the European Union’s (and the West’s) self-inflicted weaknesses for Erdogan to exploit in their quest for self-perceived grandeur.
The likes of the Turkish leader just love the senseless internal ideological fault lines inside the West – although this isn’t this commentary’s main point.
Nor is the main point the mess that is the European Union’s policy on migration, asylum and illegal immigration policy. Nor is that “policy’s” incoherence and duplicity, in which somehow certain EU leaders have tried to present themselves of welcoming of large numbers of migrants from the Wider Middle East while at the same time seeking to enlist leaders of gateway countries such as Erdogan’s Turkey to actual stop the clearly unsustainable migration flows towards Europe.
The main and bigger point from Sofagate and the EU’s now 20-year-long Erdogan blunder is that – if the European Union wants to make a difference in this world, to protect its citizens, and to survive and even thrive – then that European Union should fully have its act together and speak from a position of strength. It should be able to assess different political realities in different historical contexts around the world. It should not allow to be duped based on its ideological wishful thinking stemming from a transfer of perplexing ideological tenets from America’s “cultural wars” onto European soil (although that train has left the station a long time ago).
Because the fact of the matter is that the Erdogan of 2021 was created with overwhelming Western European and European Union help. The Erdogan who has been executing a steady course of re-Islamization of Turkish society, once the envy of the non-Western world for its rapid and successful modernization and democratization in a largely Middle Eastern context, and a long-time success story subject of scholars of both modernization theory and democratization theory. The Erdogan who has been cracking down on freedom of speech, media freedom, and has been insulting Europe and the Europeans on a regular basis (how about calling the Dutch and the Germans the children of “Nazis” and “fascists” back in 2017, for example?). The Erdogan who has been threatening and intimidating Turkey’s neighbors and has been eager to get involved in nearby and distant wars to boost his foreign influence.
The European Union has greatly empowered all of that. Actually, it might not have been possible without the EU. How has the Union brought that about? Simple. Through its constant criticism and requirements that civilian institutions take precedence over the Turkish military and its role in Turkish politics as a real and decisive protector of Turkish secularism and democracy. That was all done through Turkey’s supposed prospects of joining the European Union, a great tool that Erdogan has skillfully used to remove all obstacles before his own political agenda which doesn’t seem to be a highly democratic one.
The actually modern state of Turkey created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire (which for the most part was an ISIS on steroids for several centuries), had a clear and working mechanism for defending secularism and building a sort of democratic parliamentary system based on it. Every time a political leader would get temped by infatuation with Islamism, and, respectively Ottomanism, the Turkish military would intervene and stop that. It was ugly and theoretically not very democratic but it actually seems to have worked in favor of democracy, and especially in favor of secularism. And it’s practically impossible to have the former without the latter…
Not recognizing that different countries have different histories and different political contexts, in the 1990s and 2000s, the European Union would relentlessly lambast the role of the Turkish military in civilian politics. Largely with EU aid, Erdogan has managed to dismantle the system that guaranteed secularism. Now one can see the same type of EU officials and politicians who helped dismantle the guardianship of secularism in Turkey criticizing Erdogan for crackdowns on dissenters, protesters, media, courts, secularism, and for a restoration of Islamization.
The EU thinking has been delusional about Erdogan in ways that it’s hard to imagine. There have been academic papers by Western political science scholars speaking of Erdogan’s “Muslim Democrat” party (AKP) as an equivalent of Germany’s “Christian Democrat” party (CDU), oblivious of the fact that there have been several centuries of Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment between those two.
Back then as a Prime Minister of Turkey with much more substantial limitations on his power, Erdogan would constantly make use of the EU requirements and rhetoric as part of Turkey’s largely imaginary EU accession negotiations process to get out of his way the Turkish military, the factor tasked by the creator of the modern Turkish republic as the ultimately protector of secularism.
Once again, it’s sort-of hard to imagine a Western-style modern-day democracy without secularism now, isn’t it.
Other countries in the EU neighborhood, such as Egypt, for example, haven’t had the “luck” of being theoretically eligible for EU membership that can be used as a friendly foreign factor to dismantle their own secularism guarantee by domestic military force. Who knows where Egypt might be today with respect to Islamization if a technically democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (of whom Erdogan seemed to be really fond, by the way) had stayed in power for more than a year in 2012-2013. Unfortunately, realpolitik seems to be hammering down time and again the message that democracy might mean different things in different time-space continuums. Or at least that it operates in different ways.
It remains a political science fiction question if the EU, not to mention the American political establishment, will realize eventually that democracy means different things in different places, and requires different prerequisites (such as secularism, backed by force if needed).
Turkish leader Erdogan has repeatedly demonstrated little respect for the European Union and its type of democracy, not to mention for its leaders. He is the only one who knows whether he ever actually had any intention of making Turkey an EU member – unless he could actually control the entire EU in some sort of scenario. (After all, there have been many centuries when Europe was ruled by or trembled at the feet of the city known as both Istanbul and Constantinople.) What’s indisputable is that Erdogan has made great use of the EU, of its membership requirements and its support for the dominance of civilian institutions over the military, to clear his path to what seems like almost full absolute power.
The lessons for the EU from the Sofagate humiliation remain simple – although it’s hard to imagine the EU of today making any good use of them. Especially considering the main reason why Michel and Von Der Leyen went to see Erdogan in the first place: the EU’s chaotic and largely hypocritical migration policy. They are still worth outlining, though.
First, always deal with anybody else from a position of power, rather than of weakness. Politics, including international politics, is about power, money, and interests. If you happen to be a player whose interests involve actually doing more good than harm, making the world a better place, etc, you need to be really strong to achieve that vis-à-vis those who have a more “conventional” view of how to make good use of political power (for personal gain, self-aggrandizement, having their own preferred group of human crush other groups of humans, etc.).
Second, be realistic and insightful about different geopolitical and socio-political realities. Being delusional or naïve or ignorant of local contexts tends to create lots of trouble for you down the road of history regardless of whether you happen to have had good intentions.
These two points are the key to avoiding many more “Sofagates” which are probably in line for the EU further down the road of its present trajectory of playing overly nice with Erdogan types and hoping for the same in return.