The European Union wants to play a more substantial role in the world. A now widespread consensus correctly claims that the EU has no other option, faced with a wide range of international challenges that demand a common European approach. These issues include climate change, the US-China rivalry (where Europe wants to play a mediating role), opportunities presented by rapid changes in Africa, and more generally, the need for the EU to be stronger and more autonomous, better able to look after its own security needs.
Given its major geopolitical ambitions, the EU’s failure to develop an effective policy toward Turkey should represent a serious wake-up call. The problem is twofold. First, Brussels has abandoned the influence it once had over the country, and now lacks any say over Turkey’s foreign or domestic policies. Turkey’s eventual accession to the European Union is now de facto off the table. This development took away Europe’s most effective instrument: conditionality. Now Ankara stands on an equal footing with its European counterparts. This connects to the second problem: European disagreements with Turkey now go well beyond Turkish democratic deficits, or the country’s strategy on Syria and the wider Middle East.
No Plan against Provocation
The EU-Turkey dispute also goes well beyond Ankara’s arms deals with Moscow, which have horrified NATO. There is more to it even than Turkey throwing its weight around in Africa and the Caucasus. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has directly questioned the national sovereignty of Cyprus and Greece—both EU members—and thus presents an immediate challenge to Brussels. However, just as the EU was unable to maintain its policy of integrating Turkey via possible EU membership, today it seems quite incapable of rejecting Turkey’s provocations in the Mediterranean.
This, at least, is how it seems if one reads the decisions of the European Council of December 11, 2020, comparing them with resolutions the Council passed two months earlier, on October 1. Back in October, EU statements spoke of “full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, whose sovereignty and sovereign rights must be respected,” while insisting that the EU “will use all the instruments and the options at its disposal” should Turkey continue to violate international law. A clear hint at sanctions, used here to induce a shift in Turkish policy.
But at the same time, Brussels promised “a positive political EU-Turkey agenda” if Ankara were to de-escalate. The core of this latter approach would be negotiations on modernizing the existing Turkey-EU customs union. Ankara has repeatedly demanded this, but in June 2018, Brussels had frozen any further talks on the customs deal, in response to domestic political developments within Turkey.
In October 2020, therefore, the EU gave strong hints that December would see a complete realignment of its Turkey policy. But December came and there was no realignment. The EU was unable to bring itself to impose serious sanctions, instead postponing the problem until March 2021. Rather than formulating its own Turkey policy, the EU decided to wait for the new Biden administration to make its own position clear, then sign up for that. In the meantime, the provocations from Ankara kept coming.
The Turkish government has continued to drill for oil and gas in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus. Ankara has responded to EU demands for de-escalation by simply continuing on its provocative new course. In its latest policy move, Turkey rejected the internationally recognized framework for solving the Cyprus question: the creation of a federal, bi-communal and bi-zonal state. Instead, Turkey wants to see a two-state solution, copper-fastening the island’s partition.
This was not Turkey’s only provocative act. The country has recently operationalized its controversial Russian S-400 missile defense system, it has sent Islamist militants to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused all of Europe of Islamophobia and oppressing Muslims, as part of his escalating personal dispute with French President Emmanuel Macron.
To what extent can the EU’s dithering on Turkey point to more general difficulties the organization has and will have in acting together and with greater decisiveness in foreign policy?
Dealing with Turkey means taking into account member states’ different and even conflicting interests: this represents a key difficulty in developing common EU foreign policies. France’s relations with Turkey are bound up with its own specific interests in Africa, where Paris views Ankara as an increasingly strong competitor. The mood is quite different in Madrid: Turkey has recently become the largest market for the Spanish arms industry, and Spanish banks have lent heavily to the country. For this reason, Madrid does not want to see Turkey's economic crisis get any deeper. Berlin also traditionally handles Ankara with kid gloves, not least because of the supply chains that connect German industry to Turkey.
Frustrations and Demands
However, more specific aspects in the EU-Turkish relationship also complicate the European Union’s efforts to find a workable strategy. One such peculiarity is that, because of its decades-long, frequently changing relationship with Turkey, the EU has to manage three processes at once, all of which work in quite different ways.
First, there is Turkey’s notional application to become an EU member. This process is currently officially frozen, and to all intents and purposes is now dead. However, the possibility of Turkish EU membership still fuels frustrations, demands, and accusations on both sides; it involves a significant power imbalance, since the EU controls the process, while Turkey is in the position of a norm complier.
Second, there are processes of cooperation, for example on refugees, the fight against terrorism, economic exchanges, and cooperation within NATO. Unlike the membership process, this process is marked by strong interdependence, but here Turkey seems better at exerting pressure than Europe.
Last but not least—a more recent phenomenon, rarely mentioned explicitly—there is a process of containment, the curbing of Turkish influence in Europe. Within some EU member states, there are serious concerns that Ankara could make use of Turkish and Muslim migrants to destabilize domestic order. On foreign policy, the most recent European Council decisions suggest some member states, and the EU itself, feel the need to push back against Ankara.
At times, each process can and does block the other two. In the context of Turkish EU membership, for example, outrage over civil and human rights in Turkey helped to fuel protests against the refugee deal with Erdoğan. Critics have suggested that the deal prompts EU states, especially Germany, to mute criticism of the situation in Turkey. Concerns about human rights and the rule of law—central criteria within the EU accession process—have stopped the EU from deepening the customs union, and thus linking Turkey more closely to its own powerful economy.
The profound fear that Ankara will stop cooperating on security and refugees is the reason why the EU is stuck, neither ending the moribund membership process, nor seriously seeking to contain current Turkish policy, which is undeniably expansionary. A tight mesh of political, social, and economic connections link Europe and Turkey. However, this seems mainly to constrain the EU; Ankara continues to move far more freely. Things are harder still because neither the EU nor its individual members seem to recognize the nature of Ankara's policies and its ambitions.
In the current bout of systemic global competition, the EU has a clear view of both Russia and China, the former seen as an adversary, the latter as a challenger. However, Turkey is—at one and the same time—both an indispensable ally and a rival power, expanding its influence at the EU’s expense.
The fundamental question is this: is Turkish policy mainly the product of a specific domestic coalition, and thus merely a temporary constellation? Or is it the expression of longer-term strategic forces? As long as this question remains unresolved, the EU and its member states will continue to stumble around in the dark. This, it seems safe to say, will not produce clear, unambiguous policy.
Günter Seufert is head of the Center for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), where he is also a Senior Fellow.