The Unhappy Marriage: How Far Can Turkey Challenge NATO and the EU in 2020?

Written by | Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

In their dealings with Turkey in 2020, NATO and the European Union will sit across a more assertive interlocutor than ever before, but one they can hardly ignore. NATO leaders will have to cope with the actual deployment of Russian S-400 missiles, the possible acquisition of Russian fighter aircraft, the continuing Turkish military operations in northern Syria, and an incipient military deployment in Libya. EU leaders will deal with ongoing issues, such as Syrian refugees in Turkey, the expulsion of jihadists of EU origin, and drilling operations around Cyprus, as well as new topics like the agreement with Libya on maritime boundaries, the implications for EU businesses resulting from eventual US sanctions, and the consequences of Brexit for Turkey’s relations with the UK and the EU.

Turkey’s international posture has radically changed over the last few years. It is a function of a) Erdo?an’s international ambitions and political decline, b) a rising nationalist sentiment among a large segment of the population, c) Donald Trump’s unexpected support, and d) Vladimir Putin’s strategic maneuvering. This “New Turkey” challenges the Eastern Mediterranean maritime boundaries and drilling rights and is prone to project military force abroad while substantially reinforcing its army’s equipment. While every country is free to choose its own destiny, seen from Brussels, Turkey’s posture of challenging both NATO and the EU runs counter to its membership of the transatlantic alliance.

The number and seriousness of these issues, as well as the potential for more adverse developments in Turkey’s policies, justify a firm, resolute, and yet cooperative policy from NATO and the European Union. In its dealings with Turkey, the EU should focus on five priorities: First, EU governments’ priorities will likely to go to counterterrorism, a field already covered by active cooperation schemes between a number of European governments and Turkey. The day-to-day running of counterterrorism cooperation requires considerable confidence between the services concerned and there are already remarkably successful operations.

The second EU priority are Syrian refugees, whose future has been the subject of a permanent dialogue between the EU, EU governments, and Turkey for more than four years. Notwithstanding politically motivated narratives emanating from Ankara, there is a need to continue supporting Syrian refugees in ways acceptable to both Turkey and the EU in the respect of international humanitarian law. The position sometimes expressed by some European political parties that Turkey should shoulder the burden alone does not make good sense. Therefore, measures similar to those included in the existing EU facility should be extended and their budget implications should be considered urgently. Particular attention should be given to cross-border assistance to Syrians internally displaced persons on the border of the Idlib province with the Turkish province of Hatay.

Third, priority should also be given to boundaries and energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean. By virtue of Ankara’s recent foreign policy initiatives, the already complex conundrum of maritime boundaries, gas exploration permits, and possible construction of an underwater gas pipeline between the Israeli gas fields (Leviathan) and Greece has become an immensely more difficult issue to handle. The agreement between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, signed in early January, is perceived in Ankara as an adverse move. If effectively built, this gas pipeline could reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian gas and run counter to Russia’s energy politics in the region. There is no other avenue than dialogue and ultimately negotiations, which are bound to be a long, protracted process. While the use of military force by Ankara to impose its own interpretation of the applicable rules cannot be tolerated, the EU should therefore exert efforts to bring these issues to the UN table.

Fourth, the EU should try to keep economic ties alive, notably the EU-Turkey Customs Union, which is beneficial to both sides and is in need of modernization. The overhaul proposed by the European Commission would aim to extend the coverage of this trade regime to service industries, agriculture, and public procurement; modernize its governance framework with a new dispute settlement mechanism; and help foster greater convergence between Turkish and EU trade policy. And, finally, supporting the liberal segment of the society should be another priority. There is little doubt that the combination of a more nationalist mood and carefully doctored narratives emanating from the authorities has created a less favorable opinion of the EU in the country. Yet, those segments of society that are fighting for a reinstatement of the rule of law, freedom of expression, and liberties know that the EU is a value-based political entity and that it will not abandon these fundamentals when confronting an assertive one-man-rule political entity. This is why the EU should energetically continue its support to an independent civil society and a free press, while condemning current political trials and calling for their end.

In the final analysis, from an EU standpoint, Turkey today has a triple identity: a strategic partner for Europe, especially in the economic and trade fields; Europe’s adversarial interlocutor in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East; and a negative player within NATO. The challenge for EU leaders in 2020 is to combine pushing back Turkey’s actions when they run counter to EU core interests with cooperation when there is ground for joint action. In trying to do so, they should not expect an easy ride. Relations with Turkey may become one of the litmus tests for the EU’s foreign policy in 2020. In the words of Borrell, “We see the rebirth of geostrategic competition. … The EU has the option of becoming a player, a true geostrategic actor, or being mostly the playground. … We need to speak more the language of power, not to conquer but to contribute to a more peaceful, prosperous and just world.”

‘How Far Can Turkey Challenge NATO and the EU in 2020?’ – Article by Marc Pierini – Carnegie Europe.

The Article can be downloaded here

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