Before embarking on his European ‘renaissance tour’ Erdoğan had expressed his doctrine rather clearly, stating that, “we must reduce the number of our enemies and increase that of our friends.” After being out in the cold for a year and a half, starting with the shock caused by the failed coup d’état and the counter-shock of the post-coup repression, when no one in the West wished to be photographed with him, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has returned. Following a diplomatic offensive, prepared and fine-tuned at length, the Turkish leader returned to jump feet first into the heart of a Europe that publicly continues to state that it does not wish him to become a member of the club – or at least not as it currently stands. In two months, with his pharaonic presidential motorcade – in Rome two days ago one could count about thirty armoured cars and minivans – he has visited Athens, Paris and Rome. In the heart of the Old Union, Erdoğan is no longer ‘unpresentable’, as quite a number of chancelleries had started to consider him, or at least to say as much.
In diplomatic circles, for at least two months there had been talk of the ‘Sultan’s’ visit to Italy, with subtle preparations made amidst electoral deadlines and trade requirements. It was necessary to find the right occasion, because, for various reasons, Erdoğan is welcome in Rome, just as he is in Paris. The opportunity was provided by Pope Francis with his invitation issued to the Turkish president during a telephone conversation in December about the crisis concerning Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was a conversation in which the head of the Catholic Church and the man who is perhaps the most symbolic representative of the Muslim world, and currently represents it as the leader of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, immediately established shared opinions against Donald Trump’s destabilising initiative. And so, on this occasion, the same Erdoğan who just a few months ago was labelling half of Europe as “Nazis” and the other half as “traitors”, played the role of the fire fighter, breaking various diplomatic taboos. He became the first Turkish head of state to visit the Vatican in 59 years, a few weeks after becoming the first Turkish head of state to visit Athens, an ‘enemy’ capital par excellence since 1952, before he was born. These are signs of a desire and the need to inaugurate a new chapter.
“Europe must keep its promises”, reiterated Erdoğan repeatedly, after equally ritualistic complaints about preconceived obstacles to Turkey’s membership. That is not the issue and it has not been for some time. Everyone plays their own role in the game, but Ankara’s EU membership is not on the agenda. It probably will no longer be on the agenda, at least for as long as Erdoğan remains president; a perfect alibi for both sides, who pay no penalties in apparent negotiations as they would instead in all real ones. There are instead other elements in Erdoğan’s European campaign. There is business, because the EU remains Turkey’s top trade partner, and there are geopolitical matches. The two often go together.
“Relations between Turkey and Italy are excellent,” the “Sultan” repeatedly assured everyone before getting on to the flight for Fiumicino. And this is true. Rome is Ankara’s overall third trading partner with exchanges that last year came close to $20 billion, once again at an absolute high. And the Turkish leader is certain that there is even greater potential. The objective established for the next three years, by 2020, states that there will be trade amounting to $30 billion. It is an ambitious target as is customary for Erdoğan. However, deadlines aside, it is not unrealistic. Of course, much will depend on which Turkey will be trading with Italy, the one that with Erdoğan as premier sailed with a following wind and managed to attract investments from over a thousand Italian companies? (There are now officially 1,400, although according to local experts this figure is greatly overestimated due to inaccuracies in company registration and cancellation procedures). Or will it be the Turkey that plunged into chaos after the coup, with its currency increasingly devalued? Or even the country that Erdoğan is gaining control over with the arrests and purges of ‘Gulenists’, Kurds and other enemies, even causing the hated rating agencies to concede an upwards review of the already significant growth expectations (third among emerging countries according to Fitch, with a GDP rising on average by 4.8% over the next five years).
Economic relations between the two countries are however solid, with firm historical roots – Pirelli and Fiat have been in Turkey since the sixties, last year Ferrero bought one third of the hazelnuts produced by Ankara for almost $1 billion and in recent years many large strategic infrastructures have been built by Italians. According to experts in this sector, there is also a significant basic balance (with the balance in favour of Rome), also arising from the complementarity that exists between the respective networks of small and medium-sized industries. All in all, Italy and Turkey really do have “excellent relations”, also because they have never been betrayed by politics. Whatever the colour of the government (in Rome, of course, since in Ankara it has not changed for 15 years) its position of friendship in regards to Turkey, also basically in favour of its (hypothetical) EU membership, has never changed. Perhaps, as some say, also because of the certainty that the dirty work involving vetoes would in any case take place in Paris or Berlin. Whoever has been prime minister, Berlusconi or Prodi, Renzi or Gentiloni, Turkey has always remained a partner. And with Berlusconi’s personal diplomacy, in 2003 he was a witness at Erdogan’s son Bilal’s wedding, even something more. “A dear friend” as Erdoğan called him on the eve of his arrival in Rome, where he expected to meet with him, far from formal statements and protocol, as one does with friends, although this did not prove possible due to their commitments. It was no surprise that he mentioned him even before expressing his “great respect” for Gentiloni, who visited him in Ankara in October 2016 as foreign minister to express Italy’s solidarity following the coup.
In Rome, Erdoğan spoke of new deals and above all about one in particular, the most ‘political’; the partnership between the Turkish defence companies Roketsan and Aselsan and the Franco-Italian consortium Eurosam (in which Leonardo has shares) in view of a production and development project involving a long range air defence system, already finalised a month ago in Paris with Emmanuel Macron. Over the past few weeks Turkey had officially bought S-400 missiles from Russia, which quite alarmed NATO due to an ally – the second largest army in the alliance – using a system created to shoot down (if necessary) American fighter jets and, in any case, not interdependent with its own defence systems. This agreement with Eurosam is also aimed at rebalancing matters, allowing Erdoğan to continue to gamble on different tables, to then choose the winning one if he were obliged to.
The Italian authorities’ alleged “coldness” towards to ‘Sultan’ is, after all, perceived from the outside as a matter of form. At times it is necessary to say ‘no’, condemning the arrest of journalists and opponents and the destabilising bombing of the Kurds in Syria. As happened with Macron, nothing fatal. The ‘Sultan’ is unlikely to have been disappointed by his visit to Italy, where things went as he wished, with the press kept away. Business dominated the backstage. The dinner at the Excelsior with the president of Confindustria, Vincenzo Boccia, and the heads of Italy’s largest industrial groups with international subsidiaries sealed the matter. With the government he had already signed the defence cooperation deal, linked to which, of course, many others would be ready to queue outside the presidential palace in Ankara. No doubt there was a hand shake and encouraging words for future cooperation with Leonardo and probably also compliments regards to the effectiveness of the T-129 ATAK helicopters, the version of the A-129 Mangusta manufactured under Italian licence, in very recent bombings of the Kurds in Afrin. And then there were also all the other strategic sectors for investments in a key market for Italy; finance (Unicredit), food and agriculture (Barilla and Ferrero), energy (Eni), (Pirelli), as well as major infrastructures (Astaldi, Caltagirone, Fincantieri) and, with more than one eye on the “mad project” (Erdogan dixit) of the artificial mega-canal to replace the Bosphorus in Istanbul, (Salini Impregilo). As stated in Erdoğan’s doctrine, the real central theme of his return to Europe, “Those who are our friends will gain; those who are our enemies will lose.”
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Credit: Alberto Pizzoli/ AFP PHOTO