The leaked minutes of a meeting last year between EU leaders and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan capture perfectly their rancorous relationship.
“We have treated you like a prince in Brussels,” huffed EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker towards the end of an encounter in which Erdogan had threatened to bus refugees over the Greek and Bulgarian borders if Europe didn’t improve on its offer of €3 billion in return for keeping them.
“Like a prince? Of course,” the Turkish leader shot back, “I’m not representing a third world country!”
Like Juncker, many in Europe are hurt by the aggressive way Ankara is seeking to leverage its position over Brussels on an issue of almost existential importance to the bloc. Some accuse the EU of selling out its democratic values to do a deal with the authoritarian leader of a country where, only days ago, an opposition media group was raided by police and converted into yet another outlet for pro-government propaganda.
But even Erdogan’s harshest domestic critics do not resent him playing hardball with the EU, an institution that many Turks feel has looked down on their country for too long. The latest row over migrants does not so much reflect the decline of the Turkey-EU relationship as blow away the lingering myth that it was ever based on friendship, shared aspirations and the prospect of closer union.
Viewed from Turkey, Europe’s attitude has long smacked of hypocrisy. For the past decade the softly spoken, gently patronising bureaucrats of the commission set out what seemed to be a clear path to membership. They told Turkey that if it reformed, became more respectful of minority rights, more like us, then it could join our club. At the same time, France and Germany sent out a very different message: Turkey would never join because it was too poor and too Muslim. While Europe claimed to be inspired by the lofty ideals of its superego, many Turks suspected it was really driven by its Islamophobic id.
What matters most to Erdogan is the opportunity that the migrant crisis gives him to project an image of strength at a time when the country is in crisis. Turkey is facing a renewed Kurdish insurgency, terrorist attacks, and serious policy failures in the Syrian civil war. The de facto powers Erdogan wields as president — a hitherto largely ceremonial office — are based on contested legal foundations, and crisis management will help him to formalise them.