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[Bobby Ghosh] Macron, Erdogan suddenly playing nice

July 5, 2021 - 05:30 By Bloomberg
While US President Joe Biden took the center stage at his first NATO summit last month and German Chancellor Angela Merkel got some of the limelight for her last such appearance, a little-noticed piece of theater was playing out in the wings: The alliance‘s most antagonistic members were making nice. Meeting in Brussels, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Turkey‘s Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a “verbal ceasefire” during what French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described as a “recovery period” in their relations.

Le Drian’s marriage-counsellor terminology was entirely appropriate. The rancor and remonstrance that have characterized the Macron-Erdogan relationship stem from personal animus as much as geopolitical calculus. The Turkish leader has openly and repeatedly speculated about the mental health of his French counterpart, and Macron has accused his opposite of lying and failing to show respect for France, among other things.

What, then, accounted for the sudden suspension of hostilities? There was no obvious precipitating event leading up to their meeting in Brussels, no shared tragedy or common cause that might have brought them together, and no mediation by a mutual friend.

The likeliest explanation is the change of characters at the top of the bill in Brussels. Biden’s arrival on the scene and Merkel’s imminent departure from it means Macron and Erdogan must put their mutual animosity in abeyance while each works out where he fits into the new cast.

Erdogan’s role has already been diminished. The Turkish leader no longer enjoys the direct access to the White House he had during the Trump years. Having described Erdogan as an “autocrat,” Biden will not be as indulgent of his bellicosity toward the US and the West as Trump was.

That may be why Erdogan has softened his tone in recent months. He was careful to pull his punches in late April, when Biden described the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians as genocide. When they met in Brussels, the Turkish leader showed none of the swagger he demonstrated in encounters with Trump.

But Erdogan will likely miss Merkel even more than he does Trump. The chancellor is the one Western leader he seems to genuinely respect. He could rely on her to restrain her European allies -- Macron among them -- from responding more forcefully to Turkish provocations.

Their relations were not always smooth. Erdogan once suggested Merkel was “employing Nazi measures” by cancelling Turkish election events in Germany, drawing a sharp rebuke. And she bristled at his frequent threats to let hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pass through to Europe.

Still, Merkel favored him with a grand state visit in the fall of 2018, signaling to the rest of the European Union that Germany would not go along with a confrontation with Turkey. In turn, Erdogan listened to her more than any other Western leader. When Turkey and Greece came close to a naval encounter in the Eastern Mediterranean, a call from Merkel diffused the situation. Macron, who seemed to be gunning for an EU-Turkish showdown, got the message and backed off.

The French leader will be glad that Biden shares his view of Erdogan as an autocrat, and may feel emboldened to push for Turkey to be sidelined in NATO affairs. But he also has his eye on Merkel’s mantle as Europe’s de facto leader, which will require a less combative and more statesmanlike posture toward a neighbor that can indeed “open the doors and send the 3.6 million refugees to you.”

Weighing against these considerations are the many conflicts of interest between France and Turkey -- from North Africa and the Sahel to the Eastern Mediterranean to the Caucasus. It is hard to imagine Macron and Erdogan keeping to their verbal ceasefire for very long. Both men stand to gain politically from their feud, at home and abroad.

Macron, for example, is employing a mutual suspicion of Erdogan’s ambitions to strengthen French ties to the Arab world. He has also been talking up the Turkish threat to French democracy, warning that Ankara will use misinformation campaigns to influence the presidential elections next year.

Erdogan has until the summer of 2023 before he must face re-election, but he has used the specter of foreign enemies to distract Turks from the dire state of the country’s economy. A combative Macron would suit him nicely.

Should the two men keep talking themselves toward the ledge, will Merkel’s successor have the ability to walk them back? It is telling that both presidents have made efforts to cultivate a relationship with Armin Laschet, the front-runner for the chancellorship. Erdogan was quick to congratulate Laschet in January when he became leader of the Christian Democratic Union; Macron has hosted him on several occasions.

If the dark-horse candidate, Annalena Baerbock of the German Greens, wins the chancellorship in September, that would be bad news for Erdogan: She’s an outspoken critic of autocrats, and is likely to privilege the EU over NATO, which would please Macron.

But until the German election this fall, it makes sense for both presidents to keep their powder dry.

Bobby Ghosh
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. -- Ed.