Apparently his bodyguards swore at several journalists and tried to prevent them from attending a speech the Turkish leader was due to give. Police were forced to intervene between security personnel on the one side and reporters and protesters on the other.
This sounds quite par for the course by current Turkish standards, where the Government seized a newspaper in March. What’s surprising is that Erdogan’s security team felt they could act that way on a visit to the United States, where the incident took place.
But the current Turkish regime – and it is beginning to warrant that term – has every reason to be bullish. For despite its recent conduct, it appears to finally be making headway on Turkey’s long-stalled bid to join the European Union.
This could be a body blow to one of the EU’s strong points: using the promise of membership to incentivise better government amongst aspirant members.
A number of countries – including, believe it or not, Morocco – have enacted a string of modernising reforms in order to make themselves more compatible with the Union in hope of membership.
For most of the post-War era, Turkey has been a stable, secular, and pro-Western country, possessed of one of the largest armies in NATO and driven by the Kemalist instinct to replicate the best of the West. Yet their membership application was continually kicked into the long grass.
The reasons were various: that most of Turkey isn’t in Europe (which hasn’t stopped Cyprus), for example, and the role of the army in policing Turkish governments and defending the secular order (which looks like a bloody good thing from where we stand now).
Perhaps the aspiring federalists at the heart of the EU project were worried that admitting Turkey would make deeper integration more difficult. There were certainly cultural fears about the project extending beyond the borders of what was once ‘Christendom’.
Whatever the reason, it was clear that Turkey wasn’t getting in. It should not have come as the surprise it seems to have that this realisation should change Turkish perceptions and incentives.
Erdogan, with his hard-man approach to governing and his attacks on Israel, seems to have decided that if his country can’t be European there is no harm in making it more typically Middle Eastern instead.
Except now, in its desperation to find some means of easing the flow of migrants into Europe, Brussels has conceded to reignite Turkish accession regardless.
It may be that, with Turkish collaboration, the EU can do something to staunch the migrant flows which are putting it under such extraordinary pressure. But setting aside whatever is given to Turkey specifically, the EU will have lost precious credibility with neighbouring states.
By encouraging the Kemalists to divest themselves of the instruments built into the Turkish constitution to defend it, such as the army’s role, whilst denying Turkey a realistic prospect of membership, the EU has helped to bring about the worst possible result for its own values by disarming its allies and giving hostile forces powerful arguments for a change of course.
Then re-starting accession talks on Erdogan’s terms shows that, for all its high words and talk of values, the EU is prepared to strike decidedly shabby deals when the chips are down.
Alongside the example of Ukraine, where the EU puffed up its involvement to the point where it spooked Russia but had no practical answer to Putin’s tanks, the character of the Union has been tested and exposed.
Should the EU emerge from its current crises, it will do so with its ability to inspire and incentivise positive change in its hinterland sharply reduced.