If Turkey's Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, spent more sleepless nights the first week of December than he had over his concerns for U.S. sanctions, it was because of the more imminent and potentially punishing European Union sanctions that would take shape at a summit on December 10-11. He must have had a relatively peaceful sleep when the summit was over. He might have thought that he had managed to get away from a huge European sanctions bomb, at least until March. It may, however, be a bit premature for him to sigh with relief.
After the EU leaders gave Turkey an unambiguous warning in October, Erdoğan chose to escalate tensions, bringing what otherwise would have been mere diplomatic issues to the level of a mini-clash of civilizations. Erdoğan calculated that he could play the tough Ottoman sultan until the last moment and that the EU would never dare burn their bridges with Turkey. He was right and wrong. He bought time, the EU did not burn their bridges, the sanctions at the December summit were not powerful enough to change Turkey's course. Nevertheless, Erdoğan now has another deadline by which he must choose between a further clash of civilizations and sustainable de-escalation.
Shortly before the December summit, Turkey pulled a hydrocarbon exploration ship from disputed waters of the Mediterranean Sea. After months of challenging EU-backed exploration efforts, the survey ship Oruç Reis was brought home.
Additionally, in a bogus charm offensive, Ankara embraced a pluralist rhetoric toward the country's non-Muslim minorities. "Religious minorities are the wealth of our country, based on the principle of equal citizenship and common history," presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalın said in a Twitter post. "Discriminating against them would weaken Turkey."
On the summit table were also an EU-wide arms embargo on Turkey, as pushed persistently by Greece and Cyprus. Instead of opting for an immediate embargo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced, the EU leaders would discuss issues with NATO and U.S. officials. "We also spoke about how questions about arms exports must be discussed within NATO. We said that we want to coordinate with the new US administration about Turkey," Merkel told a press conference.
The issue of an arms embargo was simply not the heart of the matter. In 2018, total EU arms exports to Turkey stood at a negligible $54 million. In 2019, several weapons-producing countries in the EU (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands) individually halted or restricted arms sales to Turkey.
EU leaders agreed to hold off on major sanctions until they consult with the incoming U.S. Biden administration.
The heart of the matter was how tough the EU would go in sanctions at a time when Turkey's national economy was in free-fall. What Brussels decided, it turned out, was: Not so tough. EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions on an unspecified number of Turkish officials and entities involved in gas drilling in Cypriot-claimed waters -- but they deferred the bigger decisions such as trade tariffs until they consult with the upcoming U.S. administration of presumptive President-elect Joe Biden.
The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, will announce the names of those facing sanctions in the next few weeks. But that will not be the end of the story. At the December summit, Borrell was tasked to prepare proposals on a broader approach to Turkey by March, giving the EU time to consult with Biden's national security team.
This window gives Erdoğan a short, temporary relief. By the end of February, he will have to play his final cards before the EU hardens sanctions or delays hardening them for another three months. These postponements of tougher sanctions are not a winning game for Erdoğan, especially when simultaneous U.S. and European sanctions threaten further to weaken Turkey's fragile economy.
The trouble is, an inherently anti-Western, Islamist politician who has built his popularity largely on constant confrontations with other nations cannot mentally transform into a peaceful partner within a span of three months. He is unwilling at least to stop widening his country's atrocious democratic deficit. "Don't expect me to reward that terrorist [by releasing him]," Erdoğan said just a few days before the EU summit, speaking of Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed leader of a pro-Kurdish political party that won over 10% of the national vote in last elections.
Demirtaş, along with 12 Kurdish MPs, has been awaiting trial in detention on terrorism charges since 2016. Legally speaking, the man Erdoğan referred to as a "terrorist" is only a suspect without a court verdict. This, however, is Erdoğan's sick understanding of constitutional rights: He is the elected leader, so he believes he can take the liberty to declare suspects guilty or not guilty while their court cases are in progress.
To buy more time in March, Erdoğan will also have to swallow big words and challenges. He will have to stop Turkish hydrocarbon exploration activity in the eastern Mediterranean, stop tensions with Greece and Cyprus and switch to a diplomatic language with Europe, a language that will not contain words such as Nazis, fascists and anti-Muslim racists.
Some very tough homework awaits the schoolyard bully.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.