From Partners to Rivals? – The Future of EU-Turkey Relations

Written by | Friday, July 9th, 2021

EU-Turkey relations have been stuck in a downwards spiral for years. Following a failed coup against him in 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an severely curtailed democratic freedoms and civil rights. In response, the European Union froze the already stalled negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the Union in June 2018. Turkey also embarked on a more assertive foreign policy in its neighbourhood, clashing with the EU. The Turkish navy has operated near Greek islands and around Cyprus, challenging Athens and Nicosia’s claims to the waters there and to hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean. Tensions with Europe were particularly high in the summer of 2020, with a collision between Turkish and Greek ships and a standoff between a Turkish and a French ship near Libya. Turkey’s involvement in the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh has led many EU members to see Turkish foreign policy as destabilising.

In response to Turkey’s actions against Cyprus and Greece, the EU sanctioned some Turkish officials involved in naval operations, but member states could not agree on imposing broader sanctions. While some saw Turkey as a threat, and viewed sanctions as a deterrent, Turkey remains an important partner for many others. At the end of 2020 the member states agreed on a dual strategy: they threatened more sanctions if Ankara did not halt its actions, but also said that if Turkey desisted, the EU was ready to launch a ‘positive agenda’ centred on modernizing the EU-Turkey customs union. In 2021, Ankara took steps to defuse tensions with the EU, pausing its naval activities, resuming diplomacy with Greece and signalling that it wanted better relations with Europe.

Despite this, EU-Turkey relations will continue to be characterised by a high degree of friction for the foreseeable future. Ankara’s recent de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean does not reflect a deeper strategic shift. Turkey has not abandoned its claims in the eastern Mediterranean or changed its stance towards Cyprus. At home, the government continues to lash out at the opposition. Domestic political incentives encourage Erdo?an to pursue an assertive foreign policy that damages relations with EU member states, and discourage him from undertaking the democratic reforms that would be necessary to durably improve ties with the EU.

The EU has to maintain co-operation with Turkey in areas of core interest. The challenge for the EU is to defend its interests and prevent dangerous tensions from re-emerging. The Union should redouble its efforts to promote dialogue in Cyprus and try to reduce tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. Putting co-operation on migration on a firmer footing should be a priority: the EU should provide a new funding package to support to the millions of refugees in Turkey for the next few years. At the same time, as Turkey is an important player in Europe’s neighbourhood, it is in the EU’s interests to try to work with Ankara in managing migration and in addressing common foreign policy challenges, for example in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The EU should leave the door open for Turkish membership of the Union, at least until the next Turkish elections in 2023, when there might be a change of government in Ankara. Ending accession negotiations now would not solve existing issues, but it risks pushing Turkey further away from the West and leading to more confrontation.

As mentioned, while tensions have cooled since last summer, there is little chance of a genuine improvement in relations in the near term. Turkey’s recent turn towards moderation is driven by economic necessity rather than a change of heart. Ankara has not changed its stance over Cyprus or the eastern Mediterranean, and pursuing an assertive foreign policy appeals to many of Erdo?an’s supporters. At the same time, his government has not eased domestic repression and has few incentives to strengthen the rule of law. All this means that tensions between Turkey, the EU and US will probably simmer, and could flare up again over issues such as the eastern Mediterranean or Ankara’s ties with Russia.

The challenge for the EU and its member states is to protect their interests while trying to contain tensions and maintain essential co-operation with Ankara. The EU’s focus should be on encouraging Greece and Turkey to negotiate on their differences, promoting dialogue in Cyprus and trying to reduce tensions between Turkey and other states in the region. The Union should also try to put migration co-operation with Ankara on a more stable footing. Given Turkey’s importance as a foreign policy player in the EU’s neighbourhood, the Union should be open to working with Ankara in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine – if their interests are aligned. Finally, Europe should keep the accession process alive, at least until the next Turkish elections in 2023. Ending it would only push Turkey further away from the West.

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