Europe and the EU


What do the conciliatory words from Ankara mean?

25 Mar 2021 - 18:12

The Dutch version of this op-ed is published in Elsevier Weekblad.

Turkey’s President
Erdoğan sent his French counterpart Macron a personal letter wishing him a speedy recovery after he caught coronavirus at the end of 2020. Earlier this month the number two in the Turkish foreign ministry, Sedat Önal, attended exploratory talks with Greece on a way out of the conflict on drilling for natural gas in the Mediterranean. And recently the Turkish government presented a new human rights plan aimed at better protection for freedom of speech and the rule of law. Everything points to a charm offensive by Erdoğan towards the EU. On 25 and 26 March Europe’s leaders will be discussing Turkey, including a ‘positive agenda’. But is the wise response to accept or reject the outstretched hand?

EU-Turkey: a complex relationship

Relations with Turkey have not been good for many years and the list of conflicts and headaches is a long one. The EU is particularly critical of the many political prisoners, violations of the rule of law and more recently Turkey's assertive foreign policy. In December European leaders decided to introduce new sanctions against – in their view illegal – gas drilling by Turkey in the Mediterranean near Greece and Cyprus. Turkey, on the other hand, points the finger of accusation at the EU and condemns among other things its failure to fulfil agreements made as part of the EU-Turkey migration deal.

Despite all this the Erdoğan government continues to stress publicly that Turkey has only one ultimate goal: full EU membership – something no longer being seriously contemplated in the EU. That does not mean Turkey is of less interest as a partner. The country remains essential for cooperation on migration and needs to be monitored carefully in the context of military interventions in the Middle East.

Why now?

Why precisely now is Turkey building bridges? First it is useful to mention that bridge-building is nothing new. Over the years various action plans and groups have been introduced in order to strengthen ties to the EU and accelerate EU accession. But that was when Erdoğan was in a stronger position and enjoyed greater support in society. After years of economic prosperity Turkey is now having to contend with rising unemployment and high inflation and the country’s reception of refugees – now totalling four million – is starting to take its toll.

During the 2019 local elections Erdoğan’s AKP had to cede the mayoralties of Ankara and Istanbul to the opposition and current polling shows his party and the coalition partner MHP losing their majority. The military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya – made possible partly by Trump’s isolationism – served for a long time as a diversionary tactic, but with the Biden administration now in office the question is whether Turkey will get away with it much longer.

Scepticism in the EU

Ankara’s sudden charm offensive is drawing scepticism in EU circles. Partly because previous initiatives often came to nothing, there is a predominant feeling that this is no longer so much about a recovery in EU-Turkey relations, but about improving Erdoğan’s image in Turkey. And that feeling appears justified. Barely two weeks after the presentation of the human rights plan, Turkey’s public prosecutor brought a case at the Constitutional Court aimed at banning the pro-Kurdish HDP party. A few days later Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a European convention aimed at countering violence against women. The difference between word and deed could scarcely be greater.

On 25 and 26 March the European leaders’ agenda will include not only this but also ‘the expansion of sanctions’. Last Thursday it already emerged that the introduction of new sanctions would probably be shelved, partly due to Erdoğan’s constructive tone and the resumption of talks between Greece and Turkey. The second item – the positive agenda – is more complex, however, particularly in view of the mixed signals from Turkey. Covering migration cooperation, high level dialogue and economy and trade, the leaders agreed, in December 2020, that: “the offer of a positive EU-Turkey agenda remains on the table, provided Turkey shows readiness to promote a genuine partnership with the EU and its Member States […]’. But that readiness, as we can see, has so far been very limited.

Small steps, but steps nonetheless

It would nevertheless be unwise to block that positive agenda, simply because to do so would risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In migration cooperation in particular there is a substantial and structural shared interest, and cooperation is essential to provide reception and protection to refugees in Turkey. And, whether they are sincere or otherwise, the fact is that after a five-year break discussions have resumed between Greece and Turkey.

It would therefore be more sensible to continue encouraging such positive developments and cooperation, to remain critical of things that are not going well and to utilize the bonus card: examining whether the EU, through better coordination and cooperation with the Biden administration, can influence Turkey’s assertive foreign policy. With President Trump looking elsewhere, Erdoğan was able not only to act more assertively in the region, but also, without too many repercussions, to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Under Biden, whose national security adviser has already said he wants to work with the EU on Turkey, that will be much more difficult. The expectation at this stage is that the US will give backing to Europe’s Turkey policy on the Cyprus issue, the S-400 (in a NATO context) and climate.

This approach will not deliver a flourishing EU-Turkey relationship in the immediate term, but the opportunities for a partnership featuring cooperation on issues of mutual interest will hopefully increase slightly.

Small steps, but steps nonetheless, let’s say.