International frustration with Turkey has reached fever pitch. Turkey continues to occupy one-third of Cyprus and, with its move into Varosha, has resumed its ethnic cleansing there. A new, harder-line puppet president there will only harden Turkey’s colonization in the coming years. Turkey’s “peace corridor” in northern Syria has turned into a horror of ethnic cleansing, kidnap and rape where Islamic State veterans roam alongside Turkish soldiers.
Whereas apologists for Turkey could dismiss Turkish actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria or Iraq as rooted in economic disputes or counterterrorism operations, Ankara’s intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh by air and with Syrian mercenaries revolves around neither and suggests Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s motivation is much more religious animus.
Diplomatic démarches will do little to change Erdogan’s mind. After all, he has received dozens, if not hundreds of them. When American and European leaders confront him with words, he sees a lack of seriousness and continues his aggression. Only when American or European leaders impose sanctions does he listen.
This was the case with Andrew Brunson, an American pastor whom Erdogan arrested on false charges in order to trade for political concessions. President Donald Trump instead imposed tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum and sanctioned senior Turkish officials. The move caused a precipitous decline in the Turkish lira, and Erdogan reversed course. Simply put, sanctions work.
The question then becomes whether Europe will have the will to impose sanctions on Turkey. There still appears to be too little will. At least five European Union member-states reportedly balked at Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ proposal earlier this month for an arms embargo on Turkey. This is unfortunate given how Turkish weaponry now fuels instability amongst all its neighbors except Bulgaria and how Turkey has sold weaponry onward to Belarus where it has been used to suppress pro-democracy protesters.
That some European leaders put mercantile interests above human rights and peacemaking is not new. That was the downfall of the late German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel’s “critical dialogue” with Iran. Turkey may be an even more dangerous adversary for Europe both due to its proximity and Erdogan’s volatility.
European leaders can still pressure Turkey without hurting their own business interests, however. The Turkish government owns a 49% share of Turkish Air, the country’s flagship carrier. In addition, Erdogan cronies own many of the private shares. Erdogan has invested greatly in the airline as he seeks to transform Istanbul into a travel hub to rival Dubai or Doha. To this end, he has invested approximately €10 billion in a new Istanbul airport. In 2019, tourism revenue earned Turkey €29 billion.
If European leaders wished to disincentive Erdogan’s aggression, they might ban Turkish Air landing rights in European airports. This would be both a symbolic blow to the prestige Turkey seeks through its airline, and also undercut Turkey’s investment in Istanbul’s new airport by slashing its utility as a transit airport. While Erdogan might bluster about reciprocal banning of European carriers to Turkey, he will likely think twice given the potential for tourism collapse in Turkey. No European company would suffer.
The same strategy might apply to Turkish-occupied Cyprus. European tourists who look at occupied Cyprus just as a tourist destination should realize that they are subsidizing ethnic cleansing. As such, the EU might also sanction any airliner or charter company that ferries tourists there and force budget carriers to decide: Serve Europe, or serve Turkey’s occupation, but not both. Again, the cost to European businessmen would be minimal.
Europe might make other moves: Its rhetoric to the contrary, Turkey clearly gave up its aspirations to join the EU long ago. Instead, it seeks an enhanced relationship building off of its existing Customs Union. In effect, Turkey wants an arrangement like Norway’s in which it is a non-EU member that is part of the European Economic Area and the Schengen zone.
The EU conditionally put an updated customs union on the table in an effort to ameliorate Turkey and defuse the Eastern Mediterranean crisis. This offer should be immediately retracted. Brussels offered a positive agenda, but Ankara rejected it. Once again, history shows Erdogan responds to sticks rather than carrots. Indeed, it is time for public deliberations about canceling Turkey’s existing Customs Union.
European leaders may be averse to sanctions, but sometimes they are a tool necessary to advance peace and avoid bloodshed. Too many current and former officials have allowed Erdogan to believe that he has more leverage over the EU than it has over him. There will be no peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and along Turkey’s borders until Europeans disabuse him of that notion. Simply put, Erdogan is the sultan who wears no clothes. It is time European governments reminded him how naked and alone he really is.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.