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Economist– WHEN Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits a European city, it stays visited. Parts of Brussels ground to a halt this week when Turkey’s president dropped in for a two-day state trip. Roads were closed, barricades erected and dozens of armed police deployed to ensure a smooth path for the sultan. His wife was given the run of a luxury-goods shop while traffic was blocked outside. When thwarted, Mr Erdogan improvised: blocked by Brussels’ mean-minded mayor from using an 18,000-seat stadium for a rally, he repaired to an open-top double-decker bus to address thousands of adoring fans outside his hotel. Vladimir Putin had nothing on this the last time he came to town, says an amused official.
Officially, Mr Erdogan was in Belgium to open an art exhibition celebrating Turkey’s cultural heritage. The theme dovetails with his desire to portray himself as the heir to Turkey’s Ottoman glories rather than its more recent secular rulers. But with over 400,000 migrants having left Turkey’s shores for Europe this year, the European Union’s leaders were keen to have a word, too. That presented the president with a second chance to shine.
At a press conference Mr Erdogan, standing next to Donald Tusk, the stony-faced president of the European Council, delivered a righteous lecture to his European audience. He reminded them that Turkey had taken in 2m refugees without heed to nationality or religion (take note, Hungary). He linked Western forces’ battle against Islamic State to his own fight with Kurdish rebels, denouncing the “black propaganda” from some Europeans that says the PKK are not terrorists. He urged the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. He took no questions.
Much of this was theatre designed for home: Mr Erdogan’s AK party is scrapping to secure a majority in an election on November 1st, having failed to do so in June. But still, this is not the Turkey Europe is used to. For years its leaders would visit European capitals as supplicants, hoping to revive dormant EU membership talks and grimacing through rebukes on human rights. Today, with European jihadists streaming across Turkey’s porous border with Syria and no end in sight to the flow of migrants, Mr Erdogan is suddenly the indispensable partner. And Europe’s inept handling of the refugee crisis has left him with plenty to crow about.
This has given rise to much talk about realpolitik—perhaps an EU concession on visa-free travel for Turks in exchange for increased Turkish naval patrols. There is much to discuss: besides an easing of visa rules, Mr Erdogan wants Europe’s money and its co-operation on energy, and the Europeans are desperate for Turkey to do more to keep refugees from their shores. But the rules governing matters like visa liberalisation cannot easily be dodged, and anyway the EU does not do grand strategy well. A draft “action plan” released by the European Commission after Mr Erdogan’s visit contains high-minded aspirations on matters like refugee resettlement and border co-operation, but details are scarce.
Turkey, and Mr Erdogan in particular, can be maddening partners. Yet the Europeans must share the blame for the bind they find themselves in. In bygone years anti-Turkish animosity from some Europeans deprived the EU of much of its leverage, notes Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey who is now at Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. More recently, as François Hollande, France’s president, acknowledged this week, the EU has dozed through the refugee problem: Syrians have been pouring into Turkey for four years. This year’s rush of migrants into Europe was “perfectly foreseeable”, sighs a senior EU official. “We simply pretended not to see it.”
None of this should obscure the pressure Mr Erdogan is under. Russian bombers on Syrian raids wandered “accidentally” into Turkish airspace this week, spooking officials. The Turkish economy is wobbling. And the number of migrants now leaving for Europe points to trouble ahead. A new survey from the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, finds that 81% of Turks believe immigrants are failing to integrate, and that 68% want a tougher approach towards refugees. Just like the European countries that lie on the migratory route to Germany, Turkey has little incentive to keep refugees in place who do not want to be there.
A club that would have me as a member
Mr Erdogan’s visit to Brussels was the first by a Turkish leader in living memory not to be dominated by Turkey’s EU membership bid. Those talks stalled almost as soon as they began, ten years ago this week, dogged at first by a Turkish embargo on Cypriot ships and more recently by Mr Erdogan’s tilt towards autocracy, including attacks on the press. (The editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey’s best-selling daily, resigned this week, citing “unlawful pressure”.) Today, Turkish ministers like to boast that the EU needs Turkey more than the other way around.
Paradoxically, this presents Europeans with an opening. For years the membership talks have bred little but fatigue and distrust. Today’s shared problems offer a chance to rebuild relations on different foundations. Few migration crises end without deals between sending and receiving countries. If Europe’s national leaders and Mr Erdogan can find the will to strike a grand bargain, involving large-scale refugee resettlement and financial support from Europe in exchange for tighter Turkish border controls, the two sides may achieve more together than they did during a decade of accession talks.
Unfortunately this carries the risk that the EU begins dealing with Turkey rather as NATO does: a strategic ally with shared interests, rather than a potential member in whose domestic affairs it has a legitimate interest. Turkey’s democracy is backsliding, the peace process with the Kurds is crumbling and next month’s election could cement Mr Erdogan’s dream of an executive presidency. This is hardly the ideal time for the EU to close its eyes to Turkey’s creeping authoritarianism. But it must seem awfully tempting.