10 April 2021
The dictator and us
What I find even more shocking than Charles Michel's lack of sensitivity is the lack of awareness about the context in which the visit took place. Two days earlier, Erdogan had arrested retired admirals after they pointed out that the 1936 Montreux Convention should also apply to the Istanbul canal, a project to build a waterway parallel to the Bosporus. The convention forms part of the diplomatic peace architecture of 20th century Europe. It gave Turkey the right to restrict the passage of foreign military ships during war time, but guarantees free passage of civilian and military vessels during peacetime, subject to fixed limits. It was drawn up to end a series of Russo-Turkish wars over control of the Black Sea. At a time when Russia is amassing troops on its border with Ukraine, a Turkish regional power grab is about the last thing the EU could possibly want.
Why on earth does the EU think that it can have a photo-op with Turkey's dictator - man who commits serial human rights violations in his country, and is now openly flouting rules of international law - at a time like this? As in war, you choose your weapons in diplomacy. There is a time for photo-ops, and a time for quiet background diplomacy. For me, the real scandal of what happened last week is not about sofas, but the EU’s diplomatic failure. While EU leaders are shaking hands with foreign dictators, the EU has allowed itself to become politically dependent on Russian gas, on Chinese telecommunications technology and on Turkey as a shock absorber of migration streams.
A more fitting symbol of the state of European diplomacy was Xi Jinping's telephone call with Angela Merkel. He told her that the EU should pursue strategic autonomy to decouple from the US and bind the EU and China more closely together. It is revealing that the Chinese president thinks he can define what EU strategic autonomy means. Right now, the pursuit of European strategic autonomy boils down to economic relations. Merkel cannot raise human rights violations against the Uighurs because Volkswagen cannot rule out that part of its Chinese supply chain relies on slave labour. She is not as insensitive as Gerhard Schröder, her predecessor, who says bluntly that foreign policy is about interests, not human rights. Her language is softer, but the diplomacy is the same.
German foreign policy thinking is where the US was in 1953, when Charles Wilson, the General Motors chief who was about to become defence secretary, made his immortal comment during his confirmation hearings: “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Since Germany’s economic model is reliant on exports, you could just about make a rational defence of a foreign policy as an instrument to secure commercial contracts. But it does not make sense for the EU as a whole. Strategy, in chess and in life, is sacrificing something for something else. The problem with European strategic autonomy is that it is not strategic.
Presidents Xi and Erdogan understand this better. They know they have the Europeans by the throat. Vladimir Putin managed to create dependencies with gas deals. The Sputnik V mania in Europe is yet another way for Europeans to make themselves dependent on Russia.
The Europeans have been able to get away with a non-strategic policy because they were bound deeply into a transatlantic relationship in which the US did all the strategic thinking. The Europeans pledged loyalty in return. That is clearly not a sustainable model in the 21st century. But as of yet, there is zero awareness in Brussels, and in national capitals, that the value of strategic autonomy is dependent on the chosen strategy.
I have come to the conclusion that the EU should not be engaged in foreign and security policy at the highest level until that changes. EU diplomacy was more successful when Javier Solana was the High Representative. With the Lisbon Treaty, that job has been formally upgraded. But the success of EU-level diplomacy has since deteriorated. This inverse relationship between institution-building and policy effectiveness is at the heart of the EU’s decline in this century.
The case for an EU foreign and security policy - just like the case for a European centre for disease control - remains strong. But it needs to be based on clarity of purpose. Unless and until that happens, EU diplomacy constitutes an embarrassment.
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