‘Who starts up in anger sits down with a loss’ (Öfkeyle kalkan zararla oturur) is a profound Turkish proverb. However, the wisdom of the proverb has not prevented recent Turkish anger with the West, the European Union (EU) in particular, and most specifically Germany and Holland. So why has Turkey become so annoyed with EU countries, when from its creation it adopted western civilization and strove to join the EU club, and has already made a number of economic and security agreements with the West?
To answer this question is tricky. Part of the reason is the migrants deal of 2016 (intended to prevent a mass influx of refugees into EU countries); Turkey claims that the EU has not kept its promise to financially support Turkey and, most importantly, that Germany and Holland did not permit Turkish ministers to hold meetings with their dual-citizens there concerning the Turkish referendum in April 2017 – won by the narrowest of margins, partly thanks to big majorities among Turks in both countries. But these are not the main issues. First and foremost we must scrutinize Turkey’s most profound sensitivities, which relate to state security and unification, and how the West, particularly the EU, has aroused these. There are two interrelated aspects to this: EU criteria regarding issues such as fundamental human rights, including the cultural and political rights of minority groups such as the Kurds; and Western support for the Syrian Kurds led by Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD) against so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The PYD shares close ideological links with Partiya Karkerén Kurdistan (PKK), which Turkey considers a threat to the security, and even the survival, of the Turkish state.
Since the end of World War II, Turkey has become a member of several European and Western organizations, culminating in its formal application for full membership of the European Community in April 1987. This was considered beneficial for both the EU and Turkey. However, EU criteria, which were originally based purely on economic development and security, have expanded; fundamental human rights must be in place before new members are accepted, including political, economic and social-cultural rights.
The Turkish state and bureaucratic elites have seen such requirements, particularly in relation to the Kurdish question, as a threat to their state foundation. Turkey fears that the EU criteria would weaken the state, undoing unification. This has profoundly disturbed the state’s ruling elite, who have become skeptical about whether they should join the EU. Indeed, because of these concerns, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to hold a referendum on whether or not to continue entry negotiations.
“There is no other friend of Turks but Turks” (Türkün Türkten başka dostu yoktur) is another Turkish proverb, relating to state survival. There is reason for this. Turks migrated to Anatolia in the eleventh century from Middle Asia. Remaining on other people’s land required founding a strong state. Turks, from the Seljuk Empire (1037) to the Turkish republic (1923), have built strong states to secure their survival, and have always seen individual groups or nations within their adopted territory as a potential enemy and threat to their state. Of course, there is good reason for this concern. Even apart from Iran, which it has always seen as its historical enemy, Turkey has never forgotten its Western enemies from World War I, the siege of its land, and the Arab Revolt of 1916, all of which could have led to Turks becoming stateless.
Nonetheless, in order to take its place in the globalized world, Turkey decided to overlook the philosophy behind the proverbs. In this respect, between the millennium and the Arab Spring of 2011, Turkey began to adjust its foreign policy, adopting a “zero” problems approach. It wanted to abolish its tradition of seeing every individual state as a potential enemy, both its neighboring countries and in the wider world. Turkey was after a bigger prize: to establish ‘neo-Ottomanism’, through which it aimed to regain its regional hegemony.
However, when Syria became embroiled in the Arab revolt, supported by Western countries, this obstructed the achievability of ‘neo-Ottomanism’. Also, as a consequence of the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Kurdish autonomous region alongside the Turkish border in northern Syria took place, sparking further Turkish anxiety. Things deteriorated further for Turkey when Western countries began to fully co-operate with the PYD-led Kurds in Syria against ISIS, which changed the paradigm of geopolitics in the region in favor of the Kurds. This development alarmed Ankara and was judged to constitute a death threat to the internal and external security of the Turkish state. This all resulted in Turkey’s aggressive attitude to Western countries, notably its potential EU partners Germany and Holland, with ‘punishment’ of EU countries by sending thousands of refugees into their territory.
Turks believe that the state is sacred for their survival; it is perceived as untouchable regardless of system, ideology, religion and method – it is above all. It may be the only nation in the world which refers to the ‘Father state’ (Devlet baba). EU accession criteria and, most crucially, Western intervention in recent Middle East politics, have not only stymied Turkey’s utopian ‘neo-Ottomanist’ project, but also caused great concern regarding its internal and external security through western support for the Syrian Kurds, with the Turkish public and state elite believing that it is creating another Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) in the Middle East. So while there is no doubt that Turkey’s recent anger has to some extent arisen from the EU’s dislike of the upcoming referendum, and perhaps to a limited extent the migrant deal, the most vital factor is the change in geo-regional politics, which has touched on Turkey’s most sensitive nerve, leading to an irrational and unproductive response, despite knowing that ‘Who starts up in anger sits down with a loss’.