Why Erdoğan is picking a fight over Nato enlargement


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Good morning and welcome back to the Financial Times’ Europe Express Weekend newsletter. Thanks for voting in last week’s poll. Two thirds of you think Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova should become EU members.

This week I’m peering through the fog of domestic Turkish politics and Turkey’s foreign policy in an attempt to explain why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is blocking Finland and Sweden from joining Nato.

Fog is the operative word.

Swedish and Finnish entry into the western military alliance would underline how dramatically Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is upturning the European security order. But the opposition of Turkey, a Nato member since 1952, may prevent the alliance — which operates by consensus — from formally accepting the applications of Finland and Sweden at a summit in Madrid at the end of June.

On the face of things, Turkey will lift its objections if the two Nordic countries take a harder line against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), an insurgent group that has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state since the 1980s, and the PKK’s affiliates.

Turkey wants Finland and Sweden to extradite several dozen individuals with alleged ties to Kurdish militants as well as to the Islamic Gülenist movement, reviled in Ankara as the mastermind behind a failed military coup in 2016. The Finns and Swedes are also under pressure to end their arms embargoes against Turkey.

Swedish and Finnish negotiators visited Ankara this week in an effort to break the impasse, but without much luck.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan raised tensions on a second front by launching a personal attack on prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, Turkey’s fellow Nato member and its traditional rival in the eastern Mediterranean.

Is that foggy enough for you?

The starting point for understanding what’s going on is to grasp that Finland and Sweden (and, to some extent, even Greece) are not at the centre of Turkey’s concerns. What motivates Erdoğan is, first, a desire to project Turkey as an independently minded regional power and, second, his determination to defeat his political opponents in presidential and parliamentary elections due in a year’s time.

For a thorough, up-to-date analysis of the forces propelling Turkish foreign policy, I recommend Galip Dalay’s article for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He argues that Russia’s aggression and expansionism in Turkey’s neighbourhood — from the 2008 war against Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea to February’s invasion of Ukraine — are actually pushing Ankara closer to the west.

However, Turkey relies heavily on Russian energy and has not joined the latest western sanctions against Moscow. Dalay observes:

Turkey will continue to seek autonomy in its foreign and security policy. This quest precedes the balancing policy [between Russia and the west] and . . . was also informed by Turkey’s reading of the global order becoming more multipolar and less western-centric.

As shown in this survey for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Turkish public opinion increasingly supports the notion that the country should go it alone on the international stage — and certainly not co-operate too closely with China, Russia or the US.

Column chart of Percentage of public when asked in March 2022 'who should Turkey cooperate most closely with on international issues?' showing A quarter of Turks think Ankara should act alone

Other experts such as Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara, emphasise the role of domestic politics in shaping Erdoğan’s foreign policy. Writing for the Carnegie Europe think-tank, Pierini says:

Choosing issues such as Nato enlargement, the “unfair” treatment of Turkey by western countries and the fight against the PKK goes down well with the nationalist strand of public opinion . . . Sweden and Finland have fallen victim to these tactics.

Thanks to his increasingly authoritarian methods of rule — described in Dimitar Bechev’s new book, Turkey Under Erdoğan — the president is arguably in no real danger of losing power next year through the ballot box.

But much of the public is unhappy about soaring prices, the tumbling lira, Erdoğan’s wayward economic policies and his clampdown on dissent.

Picking a fight with the US and its Nato allies over the alliance’s enlargement is a way for Erdoğan to galvanise his nationalist supporters at home.

Perhaps he will accept some sort of compromise, and sooner rather than later Finland and Sweden will join Nato. But don’t expect the frictions between Turkey and western governments to fade away.

Notable, quotable

Most of us are resigned to the fact that [the UK prime minister] won’t be going but that we’ve lost the next general election — an unnamed Conservative MP interviewed by the FT

One Tory MP reacts to UK premier Boris Johnson’s statement that he will stay in office but has learned the lesson from the drunken parties held at Downing Street during the pandemic.

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Inflation and higher borrowing costs are set to push down house prices in the eurozone, posing risks for low-income households, says the European Central Bank. The FT’s Martin Arnold in Frankfurt has the details

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will complicate the world’s efforts to address climate change, but the longer-term outlook for transitioning to a net zero economy is not so bleak, write Hamid Samandari, Dickon Pinner, Harry Bowcott and Olivia White for McKinsey Quarterly

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