Turkey and the European Union

The government of President Erdogan and the EU agree that they should talk again. A good step for sure. But will it amount to much? It is too early to say, but some observers say that both sides have lots to gain.

For one politically open-minded friend in Istanbul, one thing is certain: Turkey’s advances toward the EU are not to be taken seriously: “You know, he likes to play his games. Nothing will come of it.” This view is due not least to the abysmal frustration over an increasing alienation of Turkey on the one hand, and the EU on the other. The Western-influenced elite, excellently educated and in lively exchange with partners in Europe, are caught between the open rejection that Turkey faces from Europe and the aggressive policy against everything that does not toe the AKP line at home.

The crazy thing about the story, and just about the recent willingness to talk, is the acceleration of the decline of the common relations that preceded it. A few examples to illustrate this decline: the Turkish army launched an offensive against Syrian Kurdish formations in northern Syria in 2019 – against the YPG militias and their affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, described as offshoots of the PKK, came after U.S. troops withdrew from Syria. The Europeans, who maintained close contacts with the Kurds, had to stand idly by.

The situation in Libya was no less precarious for years, even if it was less visible to a broader European public. There, the east and west of the country, or in some respects their supporters, were at war. Erdogan found himself supporting the country’s legitimate government and sending mercenaries from Syria to repel General Chalifa Haftar’s attack on the capital Tripoli. Erdogan finds himself siding with most of the European countries here (plus Qatar), while on the opposite side the Russians and France, as well as Egypt, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, backed the anti-government forces.

As if this were not enough of military adventures, Erdogan helped his allies in Azerbaijan in 2020 to retake territories controlled by the Armenians in a what became a blitzkrieg. Armenia is known to be leaning toward Russia.

And – last but not least – Turkey fueled the age-old conflicts in the Mediterranean, on the one hand with the search for gas deposits in zones with disputed sovereign rights, on the other hand in the Cyprus conflict.

It’s all a bit much for a charm offensive, but apparently there are nevertheless solid reasons for a rapprochement. Ozgur Ozdamar, a professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, believes the chances for the talks are intact. “The drive for re-engagement is not one-sided. Both Ankara and Brussels, as well as most EU member states, want to re-engage after years of confrontational relations.”

The political scientist, a renowned expert in Turkish European politics, sees two main reasons for the advances on Turkey’s side. The immediate trigger may have been the convincing election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. It is true that relations with the U.S., a NATO state, have been under strain – especially also because of the purchase of a Russian missile defense system – but at the same time, the U.S. pursued a less interventionist policy under Donald Trump. This is the only way to explain why they dropped the Kurdish allies in Syria rather abruptly.

Under Biden, the tide could turn again, as he is likely to pursue a reliable and at the same time probably more classic foreign policy. Here, Erdogan’s position could quickly become difficult. Compared to Europe, the U.S. has much less to lose in dealing with Erdogan. The Turkish president’s cleverly played Damocles sword of waves of refugees, which only he can hold back, is completely irrelevant for the U.S.

The second point, probably no less important, is Turkey’s difficult economic situation. The AKP government had maneuvered itself into a very difficult position after what observers described as a poorly thought-out departure from a classic independent central bank policy. Instead of raising interest rates, as was urgently indicated, and thus strengthening the lira, the government stiffened its resolve to lower interest rates and keep them low. With drastic consequences for Turkey. The lira plummeted, the central bank used up its reserves and had to ask for help from friendly states (Qatar).

Nevertheless, when the pandemic broke out, the political situation soon changed and Erdogan had to pull the emergency brake rather abruptly in the fall. The president’s close confidant and son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, had to vacate his post as finance minister, as did Murat Uysal, head of the central bank. In the meantime, interest rates have been raised twice to stabilize the situation – but this amounted to quite a loss of face for the powerful head of state.

Ozdamar sees Turkey’s economic situation as a major driver of the change in strategy toward the EU. According to the politics professor, however, a change for the better requires a less confrontational attitude toward the EU and the United States.

And yet – the new tones from Ankara and Brussels are still not very solid. Any expectations that Turkey and the EU will return to a genuine dialogue may be premature, however. Ankara’s willingness or ability to compromise is extremely limited, and the first thing to do is to hold talks to contain the danger of a conflict with Greece.

Ultimately, the Europeans, and especially the key figures in Berlin, must also recognize that the AKP does not operate entirely free of political constraints. It needs the support of the nationalist MHP for a majority in parliament. And the latter is at least on the same line as Erdogan’s party with regard to policy in the Mediterranean and also with regard to Cyprus.

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