Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have scored political points at home with his decision to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque. However, the international ramifications of the affair – even Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” by the decision – are bound to put many of Ankara’s European allies in a difficult position. The move will certainly backfire on Erdogan.
Many European countries go along with Turkey’s whims or are willing to tolerate its provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean either because they (see Berlin) are worried about the migrant influx, which Erdogan appears to be in control of, or because they have strong economic interests at stake, including arms sales to Turkey: Germany builds submarines for the Turkish Navy, while Turkey’s first aircraft carrier is being built with Spain.
As a result, Turkey feels free to roam the Eastern Mediterranean – signing illegal agreements and sending troops to Libya, threatening to carry out energy exploration within Greece’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and preventing foreign firms from drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ – while Brussels remains complacent and is only just starting to mumble about possible sanctions.
The cultural jihad on Hagia Sophia – as Archbishop Anastasios of Albania described the decision to Islamicize the Byzantine cathedral – shows that Erdogan’s tough-guy posturing is not only aimed at creating an impression. Rather, the move shows that he will go to extremes in order to strengthen his ties with hardline Islamists at home and outside Turkey and to style himself as the true representative of the region’s Islamic states.
The Islamization of Hagia Sophia should sound the alarm for Europe as a whole. It coincides with a crucial observation by French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently said that “the Mediterranean cannot build lasting peace without us, we cannot accept that our future is built by other powers” (see Russia, Turkey). “A real European policy for the Mediterranean” is “a necessity and an emergency,” Macron added.
Here is an opportunity for Greece, which has repeatedly called foul over Erdogan’s provocative behavior, to take advantage of the situation and succeed in having sanctions imposed on Ankara. The objective should be to put the brakes on Erdogan’s aggressive moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, under a European initiative and guidance.