EU, US attempting to bring Turkey back on board
In 2005, when Turkey and the EU entered a new phase in their relationship with the start of negotiations for Ankara’s full membership, many were optimistic that this would be a turning point in the country’s ties with the Western world, including both the US and Europe.
A prominent Turkish scholar, Ziya Onis, wrote on the Turkey-EU-US triangular relationship’s benefits in 2005: “Not only will closer relations with the US continue to assist Turkey’s quest for EU membership, but also Turkey, not as an isolated state but as a member of the EU, will be in a far more advantageous position in developing a more balanced relationship with the US. This, in turn, will enable Turkey to protect its national interests better and to play a more constructive role in the wider Middle East as a ‘benign regional power.’”
Since then, a lot has happened that has seriously challenged Turkey’s relations with the EU and the US. Turkey did not become a member of the EU and its relations with both the EU and the US have not helped to protect its national interests. Nor has it become a “benign regional power,” which hardly any country could be in today’s Middle East. Rather, Turkey, especially since 2016, has pursued a more independent policy, mainly based on the use of military power and the engagement of military diplomacy, in order to consolidate its position in the region.
Moreover, the controversial US policies during the Donald Trump era not only harmed EU-Turkey relations, but also had an adverse impact on Washington’s ties with Europe, causing tensions in the transatlantic relationship. As the West’s political unity was disrupted due to the Trump administration’s lack of interest in multilateralism, EU member countries started to pursue their own policies, at times in opposing directions. This affected the EU’s approach toward Turkey on several regional issues, ranging from the eastern Mediterranean to migrant flow and from Syria to Libya.
As Joe Biden became US president, the country entered a new era of foreign policy restoration. This has caused optimism in European capitals. Unlike Trump’s focus on “America First” policies, Biden’s framework seems to prioritize coordination by enhancing Washington’s political and institutional ties with NATO, the EU and the UN.
This closer coordination between Washington and Brussels is likely to have implications for Ankara in the coming period. Given Turkey’s interest in pursuing independent policies both at home and abroad, it is likely that Biden will seek an assertive role in setting the EU’s relations with Ankara in order to bring it back to the transatlantic line. The role of the US in promoting closer links between Turkey and the EU, both historically and in the more recent context, has been critical. The EU, in its December summit, had already stated that its policy toward Ankara would be closely coordinated with the new US administration.
So last week’s EU summit, which Biden attended virtually to discuss transatlantic cooperation, had significant conclusions for Ankara. Firstly, Turkey welcomed Council of Europe President Charles Michel’s announcement of the EU leaders’ decision not to impose sanctions. The EU leaders were, in turn, pleased by the recent de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean brought about by the resumption of bilateral talks between Greece and Turkey and the forthcoming talks on the Cyprus question under the auspices of the UN.
Moreover, the EU leaders noted that, if the current de-escalation is sustained and Ankara engages constructively, the bloc would be ready to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation and to take further decisions at June’s European Council meeting. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said this announcement was positive.
However, according to analysts, the main reason for Ankara receiving these remarks positively was that there was not much pressure on issues related to human rights and democracy. Just a day before the summit, the EU had expressed strong concerns about these issues, as Turkey had recently announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and had sacked a central bank governor admired by the West. Moreover, soon after the summit came Biden’s invitation to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the online climate summit he will host on April 22-23.
It is likely that Biden will seek an assertive role in setting the EU’s relations with Ankara in order to bring it back to the transatlantic line.
Needless to say, there are still lingering issues between Turkey and the EU-US bloc, ranging from the deal on Russia’s S-400 air defense system to the eastern Mediterranean and the issue of refugees. No one expects that these deep-rooted issues Turkey has with the EU and the US will be resolved overnight.
In any case, at a time when the EU and the US are redefining their transatlantic relationship, ties with Turkey seem set to remain as a critical chapter in this new dialogue. Therefore, Turkey should be prepared for a new era in which the coordination between the US and the EU will become more frequent. The echoes of such coordination have already emerged with the latest summit. So Turkey should take into account this new situation while shaping its policy toward the Western world, in which greater US-EU coordination lies ahead.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz