His words aren’t hurting Erdogan, and he doesn’t have the support needed to deploy sticks and stones.
For Emmanuel Macron, the moment of truth is approaching at a rate of knots. The French president has again fired off rhetorical broadsides at his Turkish counterpart over the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. But words are not going to break Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bones, and Macron will struggle to build an international consensus to use the economic sticks, much less the military stones to force a Turkish retreat.
The French leader’s verbal volleys have already lost a certain je ne sais quoi from repetition. At Thursday’s gathering in Corsica of the leaders of the so-called MED7 — France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta — Macron called for European countries to establish “red lines” for Turkish provocations.
But we’ve already heard this before. Indeed, only a couple of week ago, Macron was claiming to have already drawn those red lines, and boasting that Turkey would respect actions, not words. But his actions thus far — whether participating in military exercises in the troubled waters or hosting summits — have only earned him more scorn in Ankara.
The Turkish foreign ministry, no slouch at sharp rhetoric, responded to the French president’s latest salvo with an enfilade of its own: Macron, it said, should quit trying “to give lessons by speaking pedantically with his old colonial reflexes.” Turkey conducted military exercises of its own in northern Cyprus last week: They were dubbed “Mediterranean Storm.”
This leaves Macron with two options: put up, or shut up. He can send more French warships to waters already teeming with naval activity. (Oh look, the Russians have turned up, too.) But it is hard to imagine this will force Erdogan into recalling his naval and exploration vessels.
France can’t hope for much military support from NATO partners against a fellow member. Although the U.S. has eased a longstanding American embargo on arms sales to Cyprus, it isn’t likely to endorse sterner measures against Erdogan, who has President Donald Trump’s ear.
Macron can keep up with his philippics against Erdogan, but these have already passed the point of diminishing returns. The Greeks and Cypriots will soon tire of French expressions of solidarity, and Ankara might enjoy bandying more words with Paris.
And what of Berlin? Germany currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to bring about a negotiated solution to the dispute between Turkey and Greece. Although the EU has warned of potential sanctions against Turkey, she seems reluctant to impose them.
It can’t possibly suit Merkel to have Macron rattling sabers while she talks peace. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has made it plain that military exercises aren’t helping.
Despite the presence of six other European leaders in Corsica, then, France is alone among the major powers in wanting to face down Turkey. And Macron has other crises demanding his attention. At home, coronavirus cases are spiking alarmingly, a reminder of his mishandling of the pandemic. His economic-stimulus plan, dubbed “France Relaunch” and unveiled last week, is a 100 billion-euro ($118 billion) gamble.
Abroad, there are other crises to contend with: Macron’s pledges to rescue the Lebanese from their politicians will come due in months, and the political upheaval in Mali challenges France’s counterterrorism goals in the Sahel. His other confrontation with Erdogan, in Libya, is not going well.
Under the circumstances, the president would be wise to hold his rhetorical fire in the Eastern Mediterranean dispute, and leave the talking to the chancellor.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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