Low expectations: A year of renewal for the EU-Turkey relationship

Grand bargains are tough to achieve but, eventually, Turkey and the EU will have to strike up a working partnership whereby they cooperate on some issues and compete on others

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held Joint Press Conference, Moscow, August 24, 2018

After a tumultuous year in relations between Turkey and Europe, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu visited Brussels this week to turn “a fresh page”. Coming on the heels of recent statements from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara is still keen to pursue to its long-forgotten EU accession process, most news outlets have called the Turkish foreign minister’s visit a “charm offensive”. A better metaphor for this week’s meetings between Turkish and European officials in Brussels would probably be a “kabuki dance”, with all sides reciting their talking points, sizing each other up, and tiptoeing around the major issues.

Still, after a year of tit for tat, this is something.

After meeting Cavusoglu, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “dialogue is essential, but we also expect credible gestures on the ground. We will work with all our Member States to fulfil the mandate of the #EUCO”. She was referring to the 11 December European Council conclusions that called on Turkey to refrain from “provocations” in the eastern Mediterranean but also promised a “positive agenda” in bilateral relations if it were to do so.

Once an ascending star as a candidate for EU membership, Turkey is now regarded by Europeans as “the biggest foreign policy challenge”, in the words of EU High Representative Josep Borrell. The problems between the European Union and its powerful neighbour to the south-east reached a boiling point in 2020 with a crisis in the eastern Mediterranean, pitting Turkey against Greece and Cyprus in a dispute over maritime boundaries and hydrocarbon exploration. Worse, tensions in the area soon revealed the cracks within the EU on how to deal with Ankara – with France pushing for tougher measures to limit Turkey’s assertiveness and Germany advocating a more pragmatic approach based on an acknowledgement of its growing power in Europe’s backyard. In its December conclusions, the European Council threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey but stopped short of announcing them.

While the contours of a transactional relationship may have already appeared, there is still the issue of who will make the first move.

Cavusoglu’s visit was significant because it was intended to bring about a frank discussion on the shape of the EU’s relations with Turkey. Turkey’s accession candidacy is moribund and, given the human rights situation in the country, there will be few opportunities to resuscitate it in the near future. What is needed is a relatively tranquil and structured new framework. In quiet meetings over the past few months, bureaucrats in Ankara and Brussels have been crafting a set of give-and-take positions that were put on the table in Brussels this week. Ankara wants to upgrade its customs union agreement with the EU and extend the 2016 refugee deal between the sides with new EU funding. Europeans want Turkey to continue hosting Syrian refugees and are willing to pay more for this but, in turn, they want Ankara to refrain from unilateral moves in Cypriot and Greek waters. Nearly all European countries want Turkey to improve its human rights record. Yet Germany and others are willing to settle for progress on high-profile cases such as the imprisonment of civil society leader Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.

While the contours of a transactional relationship may have already appeared, there is still the issue of who will make the first move. Erdogan has recently talked about legal “reform” but tends to see the release of Kavala and Demirtas as bargaining chips in a strategic chess game. Turkey wants to gain control of its share of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, while the EU wants to refrain from a quick and hard transaction on the issue as a show of solidarity with Cyprus and Greece. Europeans are willing to pay more for Turkey to host refugees but fear that a quick deal would increase Turkey’s assertiveness elsewhere.

The start of direct Turkish-Greek talks this week made things a lot easier in Brussels. Paradoxically, during Cavisoglu’s visit, the only foreign policy issue on which there was a consensus to move forward was the most complicated and risky one: Cyprus. Cavusoglu and Borrell expressed their support for UN-sponsored talks over the divided island, which are due to begin in New York soon. There was also an agreement in principle to convene a pan-Mediterranean conference to bring together all stakeholders in the region. Having long felt isolated on the international circuit, Erdogan has been eager to hold high-profile bilateral meetings with senior European figures – and von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will head to Ankara soon.

But, at the end of the day, Cavusoglu’s two-day visit to Brussels was not a breakthrough in the classic sense of the word. This is partly because both Turkey and Europe are in a holding pattern while they figure out the parameters of a grand bargain. Undoubtedly, both are also eyeing the arrival of the Biden administration on the world stage. Having its own set of problems with Ankara, Washington is sure to engage in a review of its Turkey policy soon. And Biden administration officials have talked of the need to restore the transatlantic partnership on key strategic challenges – including Turkey. Turkey will be part of the transatlantic conversation soon.

When it comes to Turkish-EU relations, there are no easy answers. Grand bargains are tough to achieve – but small, compartmentalised solutions rarely work. In good times, Turkey is a strategic ally for Europe; in bad times, it is a rival power on its doorstep.

But, historically, it has been somewhere in between. It is very difficult to turn a fresh page – as the relationship is loaded with the history and the parameters of the accession negotiations. But it is possible for the sides to avoid burning their bridges. Eventually, Turkey and the EU will have to strike up a working partnership whereby they cooperate on some issues and compete on others. It will not be perfect – but it will likely be the best option for now.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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