Today, when Turkey is experiencing serious difficulties in its relations with many countries of the Western world, primarily the United States and the EU, as well as the Middle East, Turkish President Erdogan is trying to pursue a policy of a circus tightrope walker in order not only to get to “solid ground”, but also not to fall into an abyss of internal and external conflicts. It is true that this tactic has not scored Turkey any clear victories yet.
On May 19, the European Parliament approved a report on relations between the EU and Turkey in which it called on the country to acknowledge the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. It is not difficult to make the assumption that the European Parliament returning to the topic of the Armenian genocide by Turkey today is, to a certain extent, due to the fact that at the end of April the events in the early 20th century in the Ottoman Empire were called a genocide by US President Joe Biden, who intended to “rein in Erdogan” by taking this step. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to this by saying that it rejects the statement made by the American leader, as well as the report delivered by the European Parliament.
In obvious accordance with the critical stance taken by the White House toward Ankara, in recent days it has been pursuing a policy toward Turkey and the European Union that is growing more distinct. And this, in particular, confirms the official recognition granted by the European Parliament about the deterioration of relations between the EU and Turkey to such an extent that the EU needs to do a thorough reassessment of them, since in recent years “the Turkish government is increasingly moving away from the values and standards held by the EU”. European parliamentary deputies expressed concern about Turkey’s “hostile foreign policy”, including in respect to Greece and Cyprus, as well as its participation in the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh; these, they emphasized, run counter to the priorities that the EU has. These deputies are calling upon the Turkish authorities to release all of its imprisoned human rights advocates, journalists, lawyers, scientists, and others that have been detained by the government on unsubstantiated charges.
For its part, Ankara is also very critical in how it perceives the current policies adopted by the European Union. The Turkish leader compared the atmosphere that has been created in Europe against Muslims with the atmosphere of hatred incited against Jews before WWII. Islamophobia and discriminatory laws are turning Europe into an open-air prison for its Muslim population, writes the Hürriyet Daily News, citing Recep Erdogan.
Relations between Turkey and the European Union have continued to deteriorate for more than one year, and the prospects for Ankara to join the commonwealth are becoming more and more illusory… The sides involved are already openly demonstrating open hostility toward each other, and public squabbles periodically arise between the EU leaders and the Turkish President. Apparently, Ankara no longer takes into account the opinion held by Brussels on certain issues.
The rift in these relations began starting in 2016, when the European Union desperately tried to resolve the migration crisis. Back then, it turned to Turkey for the parties involved to sign an agreement on accepting refugees that had been expelled from European Union countries, and Turkey assumed the responsibility to help curb illegal migration. In exchange, Ankara was promised funds to help provide support for refugees (6 billion Euro), a visa-free regime provided that certain conditions were met, and the resumption of negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU.
At first, Turkey regularly fulfilled its part of the agreement: even back in 2016, the flow of migrants sharply declined, and kept declining. There were no problems with payments made by the European Union, but no progress was made in terms of fulfilling the other responsibilities. By 2017, the European Union indicated that the policy adopted by the Turkish leadership violated the Copenhagen criteria necessary to qualify for EU membership, and in 2018 the EU Council stated that “Turkey is increasingly moving away from the European Union”. In this regard, Ankara’s irritation began to grow, and President Erdogan and other members of the government turned to making threats to terminate their implementation of an agreement that held significance for the EU.
And today the European Parliament found itself forced to admit that the level of relations between the European Union and Turkey “had fallen to historical lows”. However, although both sides are in a relationship that is far from harmonious, both Turkey and the EU are, on the whole, held hostage to each other. The European Union, despite the reluctance of many states to have a partnership with Turkey, is forced to seek compromise solutions to the crisis, fearing that at any moment the Turkish authorities will reopen the borders, and the flow of refugees will flood into Europe with a renewed vigor. For its part, Ankara is trying to play the migration card on terms that seem the most beneficial for the country’s leadership.
It should not be forgotten that Turkey, not a member state of the EU, has played an essential role in the domestic policy adopted by the European Union for a long time, eliciting various reactions among its 28 member states. But even opponents of rapprochement with Ankara, and those who do not want to allow it to gain membership in the EU, recognize the role of Turkey in resolving one of its essential problems: the migration crisis.
In this respect, the working meeting held on March 26 in Varna, Bulgaria, which a number of media outlets subsequently tried to define as a Turkey-EU summit, is noteworthy. The meeting was attended by President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, and an impressive Turkish delegation headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It needs to be reiterated that back in March 2016, along with signing a “migration agreement” with the EU, one of the conditions officially put forward by Ankara was to organize a Turkey-EU summit; however, this has not yet taken place. However, the working meeting held on March 26 in Varna was not a large-scale event within the framework of the European Union, and was more symbolic in nature. The main EU summit, which was attended by its heads of state and government members, was held on March 22-23, but due to a significant number of disagreements between Ankara and several EU members, Turkey was not invited to attend this event. As far as the meeting in Varna is concerned, it was clearly aimed only toward Turkey’s domestic audience, and for the EU member states it was only a demonstration of the intentions held by both sides to follow a path toward normalizing relations and continuing dialogue.
Despite the protracted crisis in its relations with the EU, Ankara also has a number of reasons to express interest in establishing a dialogue. And economic considerations play a significant role in this, because the EU accounts for about half of Turkey’s trade turnover, and the European Union actually continues to be its number one trading partner, holding 68% of the share of foreign direct investment in the Turkish economy. Despite the fact that the Turkish media covered the official conflict between Ankara and Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and Rome, without mincing any words public opinion polls taken by the Economic Development Fund show that the vast majority of respondents support Turkey’s accession to the EU.
Turkey is now actively preparing for the upcoming June 14 NATO summit, counting on the meetings between President Erdogan, Joe Biden, and a number of other European leaders to help settle a number of controversial issues inherent in their mutual relations. Seeking to bolster its military significance in the eyes of the European Union, Turkey, as reported on May 16 by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, has applied to participate in an EU defense project dubbed Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which provides for military cooperation between European Union member states and non-EU countries.
To rule out possible accusations from certain Western leaders about a “rapprochement with Russia”, Ankara also took a number of patently anti-Russian steps, and in particular the Foreign Ministry on May 18 delivered a statement in memory of “the victims of deporting the Crimean Tatars and Circassians”. Previously Erdogan, in his contacts with the authorities in Kiev, repeatedly demonstrated his readiness to add fuel to the fire of Ukraine’s militarism, and owing to that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Ankara against this policy on April 12. And this warning is taking on special significance for Ankara today, especially against the backdrop of the catastrophic financial situation in Turkey, which could aggravate the country’s domestic politics, and the crisis for the tourism industry – one which is largely tied to Russian tourists.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.