The EU and Turkey need each other
20 Oct 2023|

Even before Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israel catapulted the Middle East back to the forefront of global geopolitics, the European Union recognised the critical importance of Turkey as a bridgehead to the region. Yet the EU’s policy of engagement with Turkey has long been mostly on life support.

Europe’s extended neighbourhood seems to be entering a new era of chaos. A growing number of actors are willing to take major risks with little regard for potential consequences. With existing frameworks for engagement becoming increasingly obsolete, creative mediation and imaginative diplomacy are essential.

But whether Europe is up to the task is far from clear. The list of geopolitical challenges that the EU should be addressing is as long as it is neglected. The EU’s relative passivity amid coups in Africa, volatility in the Mediterranean, and violent flare-ups between Kosovo and Serbia in the Balkans—to name a few examples—is undermining the bloc’s credibility as a relevant geopolitical actor. Even with regard to the war on its doorstep in Ukraine, the EU often appears to be more bystander than powerbroker.

By contrast, Turkey has proven to be a decisive player on a host of issues falling squarely within the EU’s remit. For example, Turkey was integral to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which facilitated the export of 32 million tonnes of Ukrainian agricultural exports before Russia terminated it.

Turkey has also played an important role in recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh. Though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denies direct involvement in the 24-hour military operation that restored Azerbaijan’s control over the ethnic-Armenian enclave, Turkey hasn’t hesitated to deliver critical support—including military equipment and training—to Azerbaijan. With Azerbaijan and Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh having held their first direct peace talks last month, Erdogan’s assertiveness has clearly paid off. The same can’t be said for the mediation efforts of European Council President Charles Michel earlier this year.

Erdogan has leveraged Turkey’s strategic location and military capabilities to deepen its defence ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia). These agreements signal a broadening of Turkey’s financial outreach and an increase in its geopolitical influence, even if they may limit its room for manoeuvre in theatres of active armed conflict. Turkey is undoubtedly watching the war between Hamas and Israel closely for opportunities to engage.

This is not to overstate the strength of Turkey’s hand. The country is engaged in a delicate dance with Russia, which Erdogan failed to dissuade from ending the grain deal. And its relations with its NATO allies are decidedly strained. But one cannot deny that Erdogan’s decision not to side with either Russia or the West has yielded geopolitical and economic benefits for Turkey.

The European Commission seems to recognise Turkey’s strategic importance, and there have been some positive developments in the EU–Turkey relationship. Europe provided €400 million in aid to Turkey following the devastating earthquakes there earlier this year, and Turkish–Greek relations have lately grown somewhat warmer. Last year, the EU launched its Turkey investment platform.

But numerous points of friction—most notably, regarding the rule of law in Turkey—remain. When Erdogan attempted to strongarm the EU into advancing Turkey’s long-stalled accession bid by holding Sweden’s application to join NATO hostage, the European Parliament issued a report lambasting Turkey’s rule-of-law record. Erdogan responded by threatening to ‘part ways’ with the EU. The European Commission’s annual progress report on Turkish accession talks, scheduled for release later this year, is likely to elicit a similar reaction.

The problem is that the prospect of Turkish accession is still the basis of the EU–Turkey relationship, and a substitute for it has yet to be found. Beyond a tense collaboration on refugee management, there’s little generating momentum towards deeper engagement. Given Turkey’s strategic importance, the EU needs to take more initiative.

Fortunately, Europe can pluck some low-hanging diplomatic fruit. Most obvious is the modernisation of the EU–Turkey customs union and the removal of trade obstacles—a move that could help to bring Turkey on side regarding sanctions against Russia. The customs union was always intended to be a first step towards EU accession. With Turkey’s accession barely on the table, the customs union merely binds the country to EU trade agreements that it has no say in designing.

To stimulate trade, the EU could also consider liberalising the visa regime for businesspeople and investors. This could be a first step towards eventual visa liberalisation for all Turkish citizens, assuming Turkey meets the relevant conditions.

For its part, Turkey must recognise that its economic interests lie with the EU more than with Russia or the Gulf. Moreover, its ability to exercise global influence depends, in no small measure, on its ability to maintain solid ties with its Western allies. A Turkey that is marginalised within NATO would be significantly less effective diplomatically.

Earlier this year, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan condemned the EU’s ‘strategic blindness’, declaring that it can’t truly be a ‘global actor’ without Turkey. While such comments do little to improve bilateral relations, they contain more than a grain of truth. What remains to be seen is whether the EU can balance its geopolitical ambitions with its core values and interests.