ANALYSIS - EU-Turkey meeting of April 6: Is realpolitik returning?
The EU cannot afford to lose Turkey with global power struggle intensifying by the day
The writer is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Sakarya University’s Faculty of Political Science.
The April 6 meeting in Ankara between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, European Council President Charles Michel, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was a crucial development for EU-Turkey relations. Prior to the meeting, both Turkey and EU leaders, in their various messages, signaled their desire for a “rational” relationship that would prioritize the interests of both parties. However, given that there are certain circles in some European countries that do not fancy EU-Turkey relations maintained on a rational basis and are determined to exploit the EU’s institutional structures in order to advance their own Turkey agendas, we should keep in mind the difficulty of maintaining a healthy relationship between Brussels and Ankara. Let us not forget that the EU-Turkey relationship has undergone such severe crises in recent years that sanctions, rather than collaboration, were on the table in 2020.
The EU summit held three weeks ago, following the EU Leaders’ Summit in December, reflected Brussels’ desire to establish a more rational trajectory with Turkey. Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, who visited Turkey in accordance with the decisions made at these summits, are aiming to resolve issues between the EU and Turkey, with whom they wish to collaborate on regional issues. This article will discuss how the EU and Turkey can forge a rational relationship, why such a relationship is critical for both parties, and what circles are threatening this rational relationship.
Cooperation based on respecting sovereignty, not 'carrot-and-stick' mentality
Circles that prevent EU-Turkey relations from being maintained on a rational basis by using the EU for their own interests described the decisions made about Turkey during the EU Summit of March 25-26 as indicators of the “carrot and stick” policy. With this definition, they were implying that the EU would reward or punish Ankara whenever necessary in order to steer Turkish politics in their preferred direction and that it would do so primarily through economic means. In fact, this is precisely the issue that those who are against Turkey in European countries do not understand, and which Turkey has opposed all along. Turkey’s intense relations with the EU may provide an appropriate basis for Brussels to apply economic pressure on Ankara whenever it pleases, boosting the presumptuousness of those who believe that “they could make Turkey do anything they want it to by applying pressure”, but these circles frequently overlook the fact that the EU-Turkey relationship is based on mutual dependence rather than one party depending on the other in absolute terms.
Establishing rational and constructive relations with Turkey is just as important to the EU as it is to Turkey. Brussels needs to be just as cautious and sensitive when adjusting its relations with Turkey as Ankara needs to be when shaping its relations with the EU. Circles that prevent rational EU-Turkey relations from being maintained by using the EU for their own interests described the decisions made about Turkey during the March 25-26 EU Summit as indicators of the “carrot and stick” policy. With this definition, they were implying that the EU would reward or punish Ankara whenever necessary in order to steer Turkish politics in their preferred direction and that it would do so primarily through economic means. In fact, this is precisely the issue that those who oppose Turkey in European countries do not understand, and which Turkey has always opposed. Turkey’s intense relations with the EU may provide an appropriate basis for Brussels to apply economic pressure on Ankara whenever it pleases, bolstering the arrogance of those who believe that “they could make Turkey do anything they want it to by applying pressure,” but these circles frequently overlook the fact that the EU-Turkey relationship is based on mutual dependence rather than being one simplification. Establishing rational and constructive relations with Turkey is just as important to the EU as it is to Turkey. When it comes to relations with Turkey, Brussels must be as cautious and precise as Ankara is when it comes to relations with the EU. The ruptures in the international political system, as well as the newly formed power structures, necessitate this on both sides.
The world is no longer a place where the West has unrivaled economic and military superiority, and there are strong indications that the twenty-first century will be known as the “Asian Century.” At the very least, the days of the West shaping global politics in its own image are over, and Western actors must act accordingly. In fact, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel’s recent visit to Ankara is a clear indication that European countries are aware of this fact. Despite their disagreements, they care about Turkey, so they came to see President Erdogan, who has been the target of major smear campaigns in Europe and has been portrayed as a “dictator.” Visiting Ankara in search of a constructive way to cooperate with Turkey, the most important country in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, is a step in the right direction, just as remaining silent in the face of a systematic smear campaign against a democratically elected president of a democratic country is incorrect. Although the circles that are conducting those smear campaigns and would not hesitate to sacrifice EU-Turkey relations for their own interests are opposed to this, Turkey and the EU establishing contact at the highest level is the best way to improve their bilateral relations rationally and resolve regional issues. Although those who are upset by this attempted to muddy the waters by the “carrot and stick” metaphor or focusing the limelight on Ursula von der Leyen’s sitting on a couch during their Ankara visit, the EU-Turkey meeting held on April 6 was a necessary and correct step.
Regional issues render cooperation mandatory
The issues of Syria and Libya, as well as the refugee issue, which is inextricably linked to these issues, necessitate cooperation between the EU and Turkey. Furthermore, solving the problems in the Eastern Mediterranean between Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration (GCA), and Turkey through dialogue appears to be the most rational approach, both for the EU and Turkey. Until recently, the policies adopted by Brussels and some EU member states that entailed direct intervention in Turkey’s internal affairs prevented joint steps toward resolving these issues from being taken. However, at the April 6 meeting, EU leaders were more concerned with resolving Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and refugee issues than with Turkey’s internal affairs. The course of EU-Turkey relations, as well as regional issues, will be largely determined by how “frank and honest” the EU, which is (in Von der Leyen’s words) looking for a “frank and honest partnership,” will be with Turkey when resolving these issues and dealing with conflict issues in their bilateral relations.
A “frank and honest” approach to resolving the Syrian problem and the directly related refugee issue necessitates the EU to take on more responsibility in the distribution of the refugee burden and supporting Turkey’s political and military efforts to prevent the influx of new waves of Syrian refugees. Despite all of the EU’s rhetoric on human rights and signed agreements on refugee protection, the EU’s refusal to host even one-tenth of the number of refugees hosted by Turkey is a clear indication that it is unwilling to carry its own weight. The EU, despite having a much larger economic capacity than Turkey, contributed very little to the issue of Syrian refugees. It also had a very bad attitude toward supporting the Ankara administration’s proposals for preventing new refugee influxes and returning refugees to their home countries. The European countries, which left Turkey alone to face the Russia-Iran-Assad alliance by failing to provide Ankara with the necessary support against the offensives launched by the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran in Idlib, which would result in a new influx of refugees, also did not support President Erdogan’s safe zone proposal for the return of refugees to their countries. While Europe avoids shouldering its share of the responsibility for Syrian refugees in this manner, the immoral and vision-lacking discourse of certain European circles along the lines of “the EU should not bow to Erdogan’s pressure regarding refugees” is one of the primary factors preventing Brussels from taking the necessary steps on this issue.
The “frank and honest” approach to resolving the Libyan crisis, on the other hand, would be for Brussels to make an effort to persuade certain EU member states to withdraw their support for the putschist general Haftar and instead back the internationally recognized legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The EU’s open collaboration with anti-democratic actors in Egypt and Libya, while preaching about “promoting democracy” and criticizing other countries’ democratic practices, amounts to a less-than-honest attitude. From the standpoint of the EU, it is clear that the rational approach would be to choose to cooperate with Turkey, out of the two actors who have come to have decisive positions in Libya: Turkey and Russia. Security officials and politicians in European countries concerned about Russia’s siege of the EU from the south have also highlighted the dangers of Moscow’s influence in Libya.
In terms of what constitutes a “frank and honest” approach to the Eastern Mediterranean issue; the EU unquestionably has a responsibility to act in solidarity with EU members. This responsibility, however, should not compel Brussels to enact unjust policies that distance Turkey from the EU. The EU’s “frank and honest” response to Greece’s and the GCA’s efforts to confine Turkey, the country with the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, to the Gulf of Antalya, and France’s efforts to pressure Turkey via the EU by involving the issue of maritime zones in its overall calculations about Libya, would be to oppose them. While supporting these countries’ efforts to exploit the EU’s institutional identity and power for their own ends would be unjust, it would also send a very misleading signal to Turkey, which is currently in a negotiation process with the EU.
Cooperation on regional issues would pave the way for bilateral relations
The EU’s decision to work with Turkey to resolve issues in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Balkans, particularly in Syria and Libya and the success of this cooperation in resolving these issues would not only contribute to the resolution of problems between Brussels and Ankara but would also bring Turkey closer to Europe. Otherwise, losing Turkey, a country that has long sought to integrate with European institutions, at a time when the global power struggle is intensifying, would be a major failure on the part of the Union.
Due to the nature of international relations, it is perhaps only natural for the EU to apply some pressure in line with its own interests, as well as endeavor to steer Ankara towards certain policies. However, in its relations with Turkey, Brussels should apply this pressure in a balanced way and be careful not to lose an important ally such as Turkey in the process. Turkey’s sovereignty is being disrespected, its government is constantly questioned, initiatives aimed at depriving Turkey of its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean are being supported, expectations of solidarity as required by the NATO alliance against Russian threats in Syria are not being met, and Turkey is being left alone in its fight against terrorist organizations such as the PKK/YPG and FETO; these are certainly not rational attitudes with regard to the future of EU-Turkey relations.
Another critical factor for EU-Turkey ties to develop in a healthy manner is the EU’s caution in dealing with anti-Turkey lobbies in Europe, as well as their extensions in the media, politics, and bureaucracy, and in resisting their attempts to impose their agendas on the EU.
*Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay
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