Erdogan’s big game: the Turkish problem at the gates of the EU


This is the second part of a series exploring Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. The first part of the series is Erdogan’s Great Game: Turkey’s Soldiers, Spies, and Power

Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost left the EU before Turkey’s efforts to join officially began.

In Brussels, for a decision at the EU summit on whether to launch accession negotiations with his country, the Turkish president was furious at the preconditions. “I got a message that he passed a word on at the airport, ‘Start the engines, we’re going home,'” recalls Peter Westmacott of the December 2004 confrontation he attended. as British Ambassador to Ankara. He recalls the frantic efforts of Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, to “decipher” the dispute. The Europeans succeeded in allaying the concerns of the Turkish leader and, within a year, negotiations had begun.

Over a decade and a half later, Erdogan’s Turkey is further removed than ever from EU membership. After leaders of the bloc ordered last month the preparation of new sanctions against Ankara over a dispute in the Mediterranean, relations have sunk into a deeper crisis, with no clear plan to revive them.

Escalation of disputes in areas of human rights at maritime claims fueled fears of a conflict and destroyed the confidence of many European countries and Brussels officials in their neighbor to the south-east. At the same time, mutual dependencies in areas such as trade, migration and the fight against terrorism means that neither side is yet ready for a complete split – leaving them both stuck in a painful embrace.

A Turkish policeman patrols the quay at Dilovasi, where the Yavuz drilling vessel, which is to be shipped to the Eastern Mediterranean, is moored © Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

After years of ad hoc approach, EU leaders are due to meet in March on their strategy for Turkey, including further sanctions.

“The whole relationship needs modernization,” said Ilke Toygur, analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the Royal Spanish Elcano Institute, of the deterioration in EU-Turkey relations. “The problem is, no one has come up with a plan B.”

Mr Erdogan has switched to a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks, in part to attract foreign capital to support his country’s struggling economy. On Tuesday, the Turkish president took advantage of a meeting with EU ambassadors to welcome plans to resume talks with Greece and said he wanted to create a “positive agenda” in Turkey’s relations with Brussels .

But many European diplomats, scarred by years of wasps, are skeptical of a profound change in the relationship. One of them said he expected the Turkish president’s more aggressive approach to “re-emerge before March”, when EU leaders make a final decision on harsher financial sanctions. they have long avoided due to Turkey’s economic hardship.

“The weird but impeccable logic was, ‘Don’t kick the guy while he’s down because he could do even crazier things,” the diplomat said. “We never approached. structural problems and said to Erdogan: “If you continue to behave like this, there will be economic consequences.”

A supporter of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds an Erdogan poster as others wave national and European flags © Mustafa Ozer / AFP via Getty Images

Sad from the start

The EU’s relations with Turkey during Erdogan’s time have always been complex – and at times contradictory.

The 2004 green light for Ankara to become a candidate for membership came in the shadow of Turkey’s discontent with Cyprus’s admission to the bloc earlier this year. The Mediterranean island was allowed to join even though its northern part is under decades of military occupation by Turkey that no other country recognizes. Talks to resolve the so-called Cyprus issue have repeatedly failed, most recently in 2017.

But the mutual economic attractions between the EU and Ankara are also evident – and are reflected in a customs union between the two which turned 25 last month. Turkey was the EU’s fifth largest trading partner, export market and import supplier in 2019, according to official data from the bloc. The EU is Turkey’s largest import and export partner, as well as the largest source of foreign investment.

Turkey military map: hard drive of Turkey, country with Turkish military presence

The ties between the two powers have been deepened by the regional upheavals. Turkey has become an important partner in counterterrorism cooperation, especially since it is the main means for Isis fighters from Europe to enter and exit Syria and Iraq.

The arrival of over one million migrants to the EU in 2015 added another dimension to the bloc’s ties to Ankara. The two men struck a deal in March 2016 under which the Europeans agreed to pay Turkey billions of euros to host refugees in return for taking back migrants who had traveled from its territory to the Greek islands.

A new migration dispute last year summed up both Turkey’s importance to the EU and the friction between them. Thousands of migrants made it to the border with Greece in March after Erdogan followed through on a threat to “open the doors” to refugees.

“If Erdogan really wanted to, he could do more [than he did then]», Admitted a European diplomat. “We are all very aware of this. European public opinion is very sensitive on this issue and Erdogan knows it. ”

Migrants wait in the buffer zone on the border between Turkey and Greece © AFP via Getty Images

Confrontations, spies and proxies

EU member states have also clashed with the Turkish leader, especially after the 2016 coup attempt against him. Mr Erdogan was angered by what he saw as insufficient European condemnation of the putsch, which left 250 dead.

In 2017, the Netherlands banned Turkey’s foreign minister and expelled another minister from the country after he tried to campaign on Dutch soil in a constitutional referendum taking place in his country. Turkey arrested citizens and binationals from Germany – including a journalist from Die Welt – as well as the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria in widespread crackdown following the failed coup . Several European countries expressed concern on the activity of Turkish intelligence services on their soil and on the use of state-trained Turkish imams to spy on the diaspora.

Lately, France has become Turkey’s main antagonist in the EU, denouncing Ankara’s activities in the North African conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh. President Emmanuel Macron lamented in 2019 that NATO is suffering from a “brain death” due to Turkey’s inability to consult its fellow alliance members before launching a major military operation in the north of the country. Syria.

Mr Macron also accused Turkey of “criminal” behavior in the civil war in Libya, where Ankara has sent Syrian arms and mercenary fighters to support the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. France has been a supporter, at least politically, of the renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who started a civil war by launching an offensive against the Tripoli administration in 2019. Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan insulted Mr. Macron and called for a boycott French products Paris response to the deadly Islamist terrorist attacks in France last year.

The risk of harsher measures

The EU’s most pressing dilemma is whether to take more action Turkish energy exploration in disputed Mediterranean waters. Cyprus, Greece and their allies have pushed for the hitherto modest sanctions to be significantly stepped up.

But many European countries remain skeptical of a stronger response. Even Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has warned of this.

Unal Cevikoz, foreign policy adviser to the party leader, argued that Brussels should have acted “much sooner, not on the sanctions level, but to give a signal to Turkey that things were not going well”.

“This has not happened and they are now forced to take tougher measures,” added Cevikoz, who said he had urged European diplomats to refrain from tougher measures for fear that they “do not cause Turkey to move away from Europe”.

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, played a crucial role in preventing the rift between the EU and Turkey from turning into a total rupture. She was the main architect of the 2016 migration agreement. Berlin is also aware of the importance of Turkey to German companies and the large German population of Turkish origin.

A big moment will come later this year when Merkel steps down as Prime Minister she has held since 2005 – the year in which the now dormant EU membership talks with Ankara began. The question is whether his successor and other European leaders will still feel that Erdogan’s link with Turkey is too strategic to be severed.

“This government will not be here forever,” argued a senior German official in the Erdogan administration. “Maybe things will change later, maybe not. But Turkey will always be very important – and we don’t want to lose it.

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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