Views from the capitals: What to do about Turkey?

Can the EU-Turkey relationship be salvaged? Key EU capitals give their views


Relations between Europe and Turkey are at a historic low. Turkey's move away from democratic rule, accelerated by the crackdown after the coup attempt last year and the constitutional referendum this year, has alienated many Europeans. President Erdogan's anti-European rhetoric during the campaign and threat to impose the death penalty have not helped. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Europe is regarded with deep suspicion. Can this relationship characterised by mutual mistrust and lack of sympathy be salvaged?

There is broad recognition among EU member states that Turkey's accession process is going nowhere after the referendum. But, at the same time, there is little support among member states to terminate or formally suspend the accession process. Instead, the EU is adopting a wait-and-see approach towards Ankara and how it implements the constitutional amendments. 

There are voices in Europe and Turkey calling for a shift towards a greater focus on pragmatic cooperation – a ”new framework” – in the fields of trade and security. Upgrading the existing customs union would be a step in this direction. But there may not even be enough support among member states for this to move forward. And it is not clear that Europe is ready for or would benefit from a purely transactional relationship with Turkey.

When Presidents Tusk and Juncker meet with President Erdogan on 25 May in Brussels, they will ask him what his intentions are with regards to EU accession in light of the anti-European line that he has taken. This meeting could set the scene for the next phase in EU-Turkey relations. This is what key capitals think.

View from Athens

by George N. Tzogopoulos

For approximately two decades, Greece has grounded its foreign policy on the potential entrance of Turkey to the EU. From a Greek perspective, for Turkey to approach the EU, it would be necessary not only to fulfil the criteria set by the European Council but also to respect international law in relation to the Cyprus Question and accept a solution under the UN umbrella. 

Although the Cyprus Question was not solved, Cyprus entered the EU in 2004 without the part occupied by the Turkish army in 1974. And even though longstanding Greek-Turkish relations were not settled, Athens and Ankara have found a modus vivendi without risking a military clash. The last time the two sides came close to a regional war was in 1996. Also, all Greek prime ministers since the 1999 Helsinki summit on enlargement enjoyed good working relationships with Tayyip Erdogan. Even current premier Alexis Tsipras, who is inexperienced in foreign affairs and has to deal with both the economic crisis and Erdogan’s new political behaviour, has established a relatively good communication network with the Turkish president.

The Greek administration is currently highly concerned about Erdogan’s authoritarianism, especially after the failed coup of July 2016. Nevertheless, its main priority remains Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis Greece and Cyprus.  Indications are not positive. Turkish F-16s frequently violate Greek airspace, Turkish vessels regularly violate Greek maritime waters and Turkish submarines often enter the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone as Ankara does not accept ‘unilateral’ actions by Nicosia with regard to gas exploration.

More importantly, Turkey has frequently warned Athens and Brussels that he could cancel the refugee deal, which could generate a new flow of refugees from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric towards Athens has increased since a Greek court decided not to extradite to Turkey eight military officers who had reached Alexandroupoli by helicopter after the July coup.  

Under these circumstances, Greece is carefully monitoring the new tactics of the Turkish president. His unpredictability is perhaps the most important obstacle as far as Greek-Turkish relations are concerned. Nonetheless, Greece wants Ankara to remain engaged in membership negotiations with Brussels despite Erdogan’s authoritarianism. The more Turkey is cooperating with international organisations – such as the EU – the better it is for the Greek national interest.

Of course, Greece cannot turn a blind eye to recent developments. Negotiations between the EU and Turkey could be interrupted or suspended at any time due to Erdogan’s emotional reactions. Greece should not insist on wishful thinking but prepare itself for the worst scenario. In so doing, it needs to strengthen its position at the EU level by complying with its bailout obligations and enhance its geopolitical role by advocating for projects of European interest such the construction of the so-called ‘EastMed’ pipeline. Greece will only be able to efficiently manage an alleged threat coming from Turkey in cooperation with its European allies.

View from Berlin

by Almut Möller

The coalition government in Berlin does not support a formal suspension of Turkey’s EU accession process at this point in time. The federal government, however, is clearly concerned by the severe deterioration in Turkish-German and Turkish-EU relations. In a policy statement in the German Bundestag in the aftermath of the constitutional referendum, Chancellor Merkel emphasised that neither Turkey turning its back on Europe, nor Europe turning its back on Turkey, were in German interests.

So far the federal government is in wait-and-see mode regarding the implementation of Turkey’s constitutional reforms. Foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel argued at the Gymnich meeting in late April that freezing the accession process would send a devastating signal to pro-European democratic forces in Turkey, which needed Europe’s support. “Pushing Turkey into the arms of Russia” was not in Europe’s interest, the minister stated. Berlin has, however, made it clear on a number of occasions that the government would consider the adoption of the death penalty a red line and the end of the accession process.

Preparations are underway to establish alternative formats, independent of the accession process, for cooperation to address the major concerns regarding Turkey’s future. This process is envisaged to include bilateral talks between Berlin and Ankara as well as wider dialogue with the EU institutions.

German-Turkish relations are traditionally dense in both economic and political terms, but are also complicated because of their strong domestic dimension in Germany. The Turks are Germany’s largest migrant community, and about half of the 3 million Turkish residents have German citizenship. In the run-up to the constitutional referendum the AKP party’s campaign for the votes of German Turks created tensions across the country. In the end, more than 60 per cent of Turkish voters in Germany voted in favour of the constitutional reforms, a result that led to serious soul-searching in Germany about the failures of integration: How could it be that Turks living in a liberal democracy would wish for their fellow countrymen to live in an autocracy?

Other areas of ongoing tension include the arrest of German citizens in Turkey (including German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel), Germany granting asylum to Turkish military personnel, and the repeated spats with Ankara over German MPs visiting German NATO forces stationed at Turkish bases. The latest round is taking place at the time of writing and has prompted the government in Berlin to announce that it would consider moving outside of Turkey if Ankara did not give up its blockade – certainly not a good starting point for talks with Turkey at the upcoming NATO summit.

View from Madrid

by Borja Lasheras

Spain has traditionally spearheaded the notion of a European Turkey. Madrid actively supported Ankara’s bid for EU membership, and has partnered with Ankara on initiatives such as the idea of an Alliance of Civilizations – a mid 2000s counterweight to the Bush administration’s polarising War on Terror – and recently stationed 130 troops and a Patriot missile battery in southern Turkey in solidarity with a NATO ally.

Though there is concern with the deterioration of relations between Europe and Turkey, as well as with the authoritarian drift of Erdogan, Spanish officials are insisting on the need to build bridges instead of cutting all ties with Ankara. In the words of a Spanish diplomat quoting a Turkish saying, “only real friends can tell you bitter truths”. This reflects Spain’s traditional cautious diplomacy as well as Madrid’s vision of itself as a broker and facilitator between Europe and the Muslim world.

As such, the current minority government of PM Mariano Rajoy (PP, conservative) is opposed to freezing accession negotiations with Ankara.  On the contrary, officials stress the need to maintain open channels to keep Turkey strategically anchored to the West and to Europe. The notion of upgrading the customs union is seen in positive terms in this regard, as it could beef up Turkey’s economic integration with the EU and thus help a thorny relationship muddle through political upheavals.

Nonetheless, there is a widespread sense that Western and EU influence with Turkey has clearly ebbed and that Erdogan is set to proceed with his post-coup crackdown regardless of criticism. Spain’s openness to Turkey is not unconditional either, and should also be seen in the context of a certain scepticism in Spain regarding enlargement in general, especially given developments in the Balkans. Hence Madrid’s insistence on strict adherence to the Copenhagen criteria.

Spanish opposition parties (PSOE, liberal Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos) also take a tougher position on Erdogan than the current government. Opposition pressure forced Rajoy’s minority government to adopt a tougher negotiating position on the 2016 refugee deal with Ankara, and such pressure could re-emerge over accession talks if Erdogan continues his assault on democracy and human rights.

So far, however, officials stress the need to be watchful, pointing to the need for Erdogan to negotiate his constitutional reforms – which will require reaching out to the opposition – after a referendum deemed as inconclusive. 

View from Paris

by Manuel Lafont Rapnouil & Tara Varma

Turkey has been a sensitive issue in France on many occasions in the recent past. The prospect of its accession to the EU has often been a political hot potato, sometimes spectacularly so – such as when former president Nicolas Sarkozy vetoed the opening of certain chapters in the accession negotiations and revised the French constitution to force a referendum on any future EU enlargement.

This sensitivity has rather declined, however, with bilateral relations stabilising under Francois Hollande’s presidency. Even in the recent presidential election, the discussions on Turkey have been rather marginal, in spite of the many issues that could have triggered vivid debates.

One of the reasons for this is that Turkey’s accession seems increasingly less imminent. Even those who want to keep the door open for Turkey, such as newly-elected president Emmanuel Macron, have made it clear that the conditions for accession are clearly not met – even less so after the recent developments in the country.

Migration flows could have been a possible trigger. Many candidates in favour of strict refugee and migration policies were critical of Berlin’s refugee deal with Ankara – still, the debate revolved more about Germany than Turkey. Even Macron, in spite of his positive stance vis-à-vis Merkel and his support for a more generous and better-coordinated European migration policy, criticised the German chancellor for her solitary initiative on what many French politicians regard as a bad deal.

Turkey’s activities in Syria could have been another major topic, given the importance of the Middle East and the salience of the terrorist threat in the French campaign. Instead, the debate turned on France’s own position on the topic, including its diplomatic isolation on the demand for al-Assad’s resignation as precondition for any political solution in Syria, and its tense relations with Russia.

Even the political situation in Turkey itself hasn’t really triggered a large debate. Unlike most EU partners, France authorised pro-Erdogan political rallies on its soil in the run-up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum – a move that was criticised by nearly all French presidential candidates at the time. Emmanuel Macron in particular lamented that Paris’ position dispelled the possibility of a united and restrictive position on such political activities in France. But the public debate quickly shifted to other topics.

Macron’s past statements have yet to materialise and turn into concrete policies. What we can expect to see, is a more coordinated approach to enhance Europe’s leverage vis-à-vis Ankara, and a firmer stance on Turkey’s domestic political situation. Macron is also likely to take into account the importance of Turkey to other EU partners, most notably Germany.

While these are first indications, it is not entirely clear yet which policies the new Macron government will ultimately pursue, and in how far they will align with Macron’s previously held positions. An important factor will be the outcome of the upcoming legislative elections (11 and 18 June), where Macron will need to gain a majority. But it will also result from the usual dose of realism imposed with the exercise of power – for instance through the realisation that Franco-Turkish cooperation in stopping foreign terrorist fighters, on their way both to and from Syria, is crucial for France’s national security.

View from Rome

by Silvia Francescon

Historically, Italy has always been a committed supporter of Turkey’s path to the EU, and Turkey has long considered Italy a “strategic partner”. Economic and energy cooperation play an important role in this: Italy is the third most important European trade partner for Turkey (fourth on a global scale), while several projects are underway to bring natural gas from Turkey to Italy.

These  commercial and energy  connections are important to understand  Italy’s current political approach towards Turkey. Since the April 16th referendum there is a widespread acceptance among EU member states that Turkey will not be joining the club any time soon.

Rome has no desire to suspend the accession process, however. It worries that, once frozen, it could be very difficult to re-start the process, and does not want to see all the work done so far go to waste.

In his April meeting with President Trump, Italian PM Gentiloni underlined that Europe needs a common position on Turkey, and that this position must respect the choice made by the Turkish people in the referendum. The key for Italy is how the constitutional reforms are implemented. Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano concurred, adding that if Turkey is to have a European future it is vital that Erdoğan includes the 49% who voted “no” at the referendum in his domestic calculations.

Turkey remains a key priority for Italian foreign policy under PM Gentiloni just as it was for former PM Renzi. But so is Italy’s emphasis on human rights concerns. At the time of the refugee deal, PM Renzi remarked that the protection of freedom of speech and human rights in Turkey should remain central in the political dialogue between Brussels and Ankara. Chapters 23 (judiciary & fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom & security) of the accession process remain key for Italy.

Italy recognises that the current political momentum is delicate and follows it closely. Any new kind of framework of cooperation that could give an impetus to the current stall is seen openly and constructively. An improvement of the current framework of relations, such as through an upgraded custom union, would suit Italy’s economic interests as well as its view on how political relations should be developed.   

The current Italian approach is based on the historical relations and friendship that Italy and Turkey share. However, this relationship is now under severe pressure. Turkey is crucial for Italy, but Rome would like Turkey to continue its accession process beginning with bringing its domestic policies in line with European values.

View from The Hague

by Dina Pardijs

The Turkish question is of particular relevance to the Netherlands. Ethnic Turks are the largest non-western group in the country, and, despite most being second or third generation immigrants, Turkish is still the accent everyone can recognise, and the food on every street corner. Since 2015, there is even a new political party called Denk (Dutch for ‘think’ and ‘Turkish’ for equality) with a large Turkish following in the Dutch Parliament. And then there are the periodic diplomatic incidents.

After the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, supposedly organised by Fethullah Gülen, Dutch schools linked to Gülen’s network were confronted with harsh accusations by Turkish parents and mass deregistration. Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to publicly condemn the Turkish state press bureau after it published a list of Dutch ‘Gülen-organisations’. Escalating the situation further, in March 2017 the Dutch government expelled a Turkish minister from the country because she had come to campaign for Turkey’s controversial constitutional referendum.

This incident, ostensibly caused to avoid a disturbance of the public order, was seen by commentators as a way for Rutte to show himself as a strongman in an election campaign dominated by debates about immigration and identity. For days, Rutte and Erdogan were stuck in a Predator-like handshake, trading strong words until they both looked like defenders of their national pride. Pollsters claim that this conflict caused the surprisingly high election result for Rutte’s conservative party VVD, with many voters shifting in the last days before the vote. Erdogan has not stopped defending his side of the story either: after a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, Turkey has also brought up the incident with the UN Human Rights Commission.

For the past years, the official view of the Dutch government was that Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union once all requirements had been met. During the last election campaign, this notion was generally repeated by most parties, emphasising that the ‘possibility is still open’ while pointing at the ‘current human rights situation’ – with the exact balance between both depending on the political leaning of the party. Within the EU28, the Netherlands is known as an outlier in its strict line when it comes to Turkey and human rights. However, even after the Turkish referendum, when the Dutch government criticised their Turkish counterparts once more, foreign minister Bert Koenders made clear that his country would not actively push for a suspension of the accession talks. The only clear ‘showstopper’ on this topic would be a reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey, Koenders claimed.

An imminent change in this policy is unlikely, simply because a new Dutch government has still not been formed. So far, the only certainty about the next cabinet is that it will again be headed by Mark Rutte. And with his new government, he will want to keep his sparring partner Erdogan at a perfect distance: far enough to avoid actually having to throw any punches, but close enough to make himself look like a fighter for the common cause.

View from Vienna

by Arnold Kammel

Austria is one of the most ardent opponents of Turkey’s accession to the EU. The country’s discourse on Turkish membership has been strongly shaped by cultural arguments over Turkey’s alleged lack of ‘Europeanness’.

Already in December 2016, following Ankara's crackdown on civil society in reaction to the failed coup attempt, Austria demanded the freezing of accession talks. In the context of Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum, Vienna once more was one of the frontrunners to call for an end of the membership negotiations. The coalition government of Conservatives and Social Democrats even expressed its support for and solidarity with the citizens who voted against the reforms. Tensions have been escalating since, leading to a sudden shutdown of traditional Austrian excavations at Ephesus by decree from Ankara, and the putting on halt of several joint NATO programmes.

This negative attitude towards Turkish accession to the EU is nothing new in Austria. Already back in 2005, when the accession negotiations officially began, Austria had tried to delay the process. Before opening official accession talks, Vienna wanted two points explicitly mentioned in the framework – first, the possibility that the talks could result in “privileged partnership” rather than full membership, and second, an acknowledgement of the EU's limited capacity to absorb new members. Moreover, Austria announced that should the membership talks ever reach a successful conclusion, it would still hold a domestic referendum on whether to ratify Turkey's accession treaty.

In European surveys on Turkish accession, Austria consistently comes out as the most sceptical country. The rather eurosceptic Austrians worry less about the actual impact of further enlargement on European integration, however, but are mostly just opposed to Turkey. An easy explanation for this can be found in both countries’ shared history, in which the Habsburgs and the Ottomans were constant adversaries – the historical memory of Ottoman armies laying siege to Vienna is still present in Austrian society.

Yet, most Austrian concerns on the issue seem to have more contemporary reasons. For a beginning, Austrians simply do not consider Turkey a part of Europe. The perceived failure of Austria’s 200,000 Turkish immigrants to properly integrate has further reinforced the image. That a large majority of the Turks residing in Austria voted in favour of the Erdogan’s reforms in the constitutional referendum, has not helped the situation either.

The majority of Austrian politicians have realised that a strong position against Turkey is quite attractive to the wider Austrian public. As a result, lobbyists in favour of a softer stance towards Ankara are largely absent from the Austrian debate, allowing the sceptics to set the tone. Hence, all main political parties, and much of the media, openly oppose Turkish accession.

In the end, there are many reasons why Austria believes that Turkey should not join the EU. They are based on emotions, historical resentments, a lack of proper integration, and a constant questioning of Turkey’s European character – particularly after Erdogan’s latest moves. A significant policy change can thus not be expected.

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


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Programme coordinator, European Power
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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