Turkey is one of the EU’s largest and most important neighbors, with a population of over 85 million and a GDP of over $800 billion in 2021, according to the World Bank.
Ankara is also an increasingly influential foreign policy player in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 14th, will determine whether President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who has been in power since 2003 – remains in office, and they will shape the country’s domestic and foreign policies for years to come.
While Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, EU-Turkey relations are poor and have been stuck in a downward spiral for well over a decade. There are several interconnected reasons for the fractious state of the relationship. Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, which started in 2005, quickly stalled due to the failure to solve the dispute over the division of Cyprus and member-states’ reticence about Turkish membership.
The EU-Turkey migration agreement of 2016 briefly revitalized relations, but the continuing erosion of democratic freedoms in Turkey, especially after the 2016 coup attempt, and mounting tensions with member-states over Cyprus and other issues, led to the EU formally freezing membership talks in June 2018.
EU-Turkey relations have been stuck in a downward spiral for well over a decade.
Erdoğan has embarked on an increasingly assertive and militarized foreign policy, often at odds with Europe and the US. Turkey claims a large exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean, in pursuit of which it has sent ships to explore for hydrocarbons in waters near Greek islands and Cyprus. The EU imposed limited sanctions in response.
Turkey also recently clashed with its NATO partners over its veto of Swedish and (until recently) Finnish NATO membership, and its close ties to Russia. Member-states are annoyed that Russian firms are setting up front companies in Turkey to circumvent EU sanctions on Russia—cooperation that led to US-imposed sanctions on two Turkish companies on April 12, 2023.
Despite the many sources of friction, Turkey and the EU remain key trading partners and have continued to work together on issues such as climate, health, migration and supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. However, the poor state of relations has made many areas of co-operation more difficult. For example, in the field of migration, there has been very little co-operation at the EU-Turkey border since 2020, and Ankara is not accepting returns of migrants from Greece.
Co-operation is essentially limited to the EU providing funding to help support the nearly four million refugees living in Turkey, and paying for improvements to Turkey’s border infrastructure. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey customs union, which forms the economic bedrock of the relationship, has eroded as Turkey has put up tariff and non-tariff barriers to EU products.
Turkey is still reeling from the devastating earthquakes that struck in February this year, causing the death of at least 50,000 people, according to the official toll. Erdoğan has been sharply criticized for the government’s slow initial response to the earthquakes. His government has also come under criticism for not doing enough to enforce safety regulations during the building boom that it has overseen during its two decades in power.
However, Erdoğan has sought to deflect any blame and counterattacked, saying that the severity of the earthquake and rogue contractors are to blame for the extent of destruction. He has also argued that most of the collapsed buildings were built before he was in charge – and promised rapid reconstruction if he is re-elected.
The political damage from the earthquakes comes on top of that from Turkeys’ economic difficulties, with inflation hitting 85 per cent in October last year. The Central Bank has been unwilling to fight inflation through the traditional means of raising interest rates, and has instead cut them, because Erdoğan thinks high rates do not lower inflation.
The EU needs to be ready to deal with the election results, whatever they may be.
If Erdoğan remains in power, more EU-Turkey turbulence is likely, especially if Europe thinks that he won the election unfairly.
The EU and Turkey would still be pushed to work together on issues of mutual interest, but any co-operation would be purely transactional, and Turkey could drift further from the West. Conversely, an opposition victory would lead to significant changes in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. These would pave the way for a re-invigorated and deeper EU-Turkey partnership – if both sides were willing to invest in overcoming their differences.
There are three fundamental reasons why the EU-Turkey relationship is in such poor shape:
Disputes with Member States
Turkey has fairly good relations with some EU members, like Germany, Italy and Spain. But it has sharp disagreements with many others, above all Cyprus, France and Greece. Turkey’s non-recognition of Cyprus, and the latter’s entry into the EU in 2004, ensured that Ankara’s accession talks stalled almost as soon as they started in 2005.
But many member-states were always ambiguous about allowing Turkey into the club, thinking that it was too large, poor and culturally different. Neither the EU nor Turkey currently see the prospect of accession as realistic, although both are unwilling to end the accession process.
Neither the EU nor Turkey currently see the prospect of accession as realistic.
The discovery of gas deposits off the coast of Cyprus in the early 2010s proved to be another source of friction. Turkey thinks that Cyprus should not unilaterally exploit these resources, arguing that Turkish Cypriots have a right to a share. Ankara also claims some of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone for itself. To assert these claims, Turkey has sent drilling vessels accompanied by warships to explore for gas and to harass foreign exploration ships. Ankara has also supported the establishment of a state for the Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island, undermining the UN-backed notion of a bizonal bicommunal federal state as a solution to the dispute.
In response to these actions, the EU gradually took a series of steps, including cutting pre-accession funding to Turkey in 2019 and imposing sanctions on executives from the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation in 2020.
Turkey’s long-standing disputes with Greece, which had subsided in the early 2000s, have also gradually re-emerged: Ankara has clashed with Athens over issues such as the delimitation of their respective airspace, territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.
Turkey has sent drilling ships accompanied by its navy to the seas near Greek islands, to assert its claims to a large exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has carried out “massive and repeated violations of Greek airspace” and questioned Greek sovereignty over some Aegean islands.
In 2019 Turkey concluded a maritime deal with the Libyan government in Tripoli which claimed large parts of the waters directly south of Crete as Turkish. Turkey has also criticized Greece over its military deployments on some Aegean islands, which Ankara says are illegal and threatening – claims that Greece and other EU members reject. Turkish officials, including President Erdoğan, have also threatened military action towards Greece.
Turkey also has, and has had, bilateral disagreements with other member-states. Under President Emmanuel Macron, Paris has forged closer military ties with Greece, and strongly backed Greece and Cyprus in their disputes with Ankara. In response, Erdoğan has often lashed out at Macron personally.
Ankara has also clashed with Germany and the Netherlands, after they stopped Turkish ministers from holding campaign events on their territory in the run-up to the 2017 constitutional referendum. For its part, Germany complained about Turkey’s detention of some of its citizens while Turkey accused Germany of tolerating the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since the mid-1980s and that the EU classifies as a terrorist organisation.
The most recent tension surrounds Turkey’s ongoing veto on Sweden and – until recently – Finland’s NATO membership bids. There are many reasons for the veto, including the fact that Turkey is using it to pressure the US to sell it upgraded F-16 jets. Ankara also argues that Stockholm is too tolerant of the activities of Kurdish groups that Turkey views as part of the PKK. Turkey also wants to extradite from Sweden over a hundred individuals that Ankara claims are linked to terrorism.
Talks have stalled, as Sweden says it has done all it can legally do to meet Turkey’s demands. Finland is preparing to join NATO on its own after Turkey lifted the veto on its membership in mid-March. But Sweden will probably have to wait at least until after the elections.
Democratic Freedoms in Turkey
For Europe, the deterioration of democratic freedoms in Turkey is a key issue that prevents Ankara’s accession negotiations from moving forward and hinders co-operation in many other areas. The EU has long taken issue with the state of human rights and the rule of law in Turkey, but its concerns escalated after the attempted coup in 2016. In its aftermath, the government arrested almost 80,000 people and dismissed over 110,000 civil servants accused of supporting the coup – steps that the EU said were disproportionate.
The EU’s concerns further intensified after the April 2017 constitutional referendum. The reform created an executive presidency, allowing the president to rule by decree, reducing parliament’s powers and strengthening executive control over the courts and civil service. There is no sign of these changes being reversed. The European Commission’s latest report on Turkey says that the space for civil society organizations and freedom of expression has shrunk further; that the government is putting pressure on mayors from opposition parties through administrative or judicial investigations; and that it has replaced some mayors in the south-east with political appointees.
Turkey’s relatively close relations with Russia have further soured the mood towards Ankara in many European capitals.
Foreign Policy Disagreements
Although Turkey is a NATO member, since 2015 Ankara has pursued a more assertive and militarized foreign policy that many Europeans perceive as threatening and antagonistic.
Turkey has intervened in the conflict in Syria, where it has established a buffer zone against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. Turkey also intervened in the civil war in Libya, and supported Azerbaijan in the 2020 war against Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The poor state of EU-Turkey relations has also meant that many in Europe increasingly see Turkey as a competitor to the EU in the Western Balkans, Central Asia and Africa, all regions where Ankara has sought to increase its economic and diplomatic influence.
This is particularly true of France, which tends to see Turkey as more of a threat than other member-states because it perceives Ankara’s growing influence in Africa and the Middle East as a challenge to its own position.
Finally, Turkey’s relatively close relations with Russia have further soured the mood towards Ankara in many European capitals (and in Washington). Following the 2016 coup attempt, Turkey bought an S-400 air defense system from Moscow, which the US and other allies argue is incompatible with NATO’s air defenses, given that the system’s radar could relay valuable information to Russia.
The purchase of the S-400 led the US to exclude Turkey from the F-35 next-generation jet program, in which Ankara was supposed to be a partner. Turkey has been keen to maintain decent relations with Moscow for both security and economic reasons. Moscow could attack rebel-held areas in northern Syria and thus push millions more Syrian refugees into Turkey. At the same time, Turkey needs to co-ordinate with Russia to carry out its military operations against the YPG in Syria.
Russia is also an important economic partner for Ankara. In 2021, Moscow provided around 45 per cent of Turkey’s gas imports, it is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, and Russian tourists are important to the Turkish economy.
All this helps to explain Turkey’s policy towards Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. Turkey has supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including by selling it highly effective Bayraktar drones. Ankara prevented Russia from strengthening its fleet in the Black Sea by invoking the Montreux convention to close off the Dardanelles straits. Turkey also hosted peace negotiations and brokered a deal in July last year to unblock Ukraine’s grain exports – efforts that Ankara’s Western allies appreciated and praised.
However, Turkey has not imposed economic sanctions on Russia. Instead, its economic ties to Russia have deepened. According to the New York Times, Turkish exports to Russia grew by around 200 per cent over the course of 2022. And, according to Bloomberg, in July the Russian energy firm Rosatom made a payment of $5 billion to a Turkish partner firm – a welcome injection of hard currency, as downward pressure on Turkey’s foreign exchange rate has mounted.
Turkey’s growing economic ties to Russia have irked many EU states, who think that they are reducing the effectiveness of their own sanctions, including by helping Russia acquire sanctioned material like microchips.
The road to the Elections:
The period until the elections will be turbulent. Erdoğan is trying to maximize his advantages over the opposition. Months before the earthquake struck, the government had been resorting to economic incentives to gain support. It has tried to maintain economic growth by keeping interest rates low to fuel consumption; raising pensions and civil service salaries; lowering the retirement age for millions of workers; and promising energy subsidies worth around $30 billion.
Erdoğan has also sought to improve ties with Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors, in large part to attract investments. After years of acrimony, Ankara has recently forged better relations with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The government has been resorting to economic incentives to gain support.
Erdoğan is also trying to weaken his opponents. The media and information landscape has long been tilted in the government’s favor. In December, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, one of the most popular opposition politicians and a potential challenger to Erdoğan, was convicted of insulting public officials and banned from politics.
Erdoğan may also turn to foreign policy to rally his base. There are many reasons why Erdoğan is vetoing Sweden’s NATO membership bid, one of them being to show voters that Turkey is an essential power in the alliance.
It is likely that Turkey will keep its veto on Sweden’s NATO membership until after the elections. Another option could be a new Turkish military operation to expand the buffer zone that Ankara maintains against the YPG in northern Syria. The most disruptive option for Europe, however, would be if Ankara decided to ratchet up tensions with Greece and Cyprus, for example by sending ships and planes over or near Greek islands.
While military maneuvers could lead to an incident, the risk of a full-blown conflict is low, as the United States would become involved to stop any fighting. Both an offensive in Syria and tensions in the Aegean could allow Erdoğan to drive a wedge between the Nation Alliance – which finds it difficult to criticize the government on the substance of national security issues – and HDP voters.
However, Western nations, including Greece, sent Turkey assistance in the aftermath of the earthquakes, which makes it more difficult for Erdoğan to portray them as an enemy.
Any of these scenarios, but particularly Turkish threats towards Greece or Cyprus, would present dilemmas for European policy-makers. There would be pressure to be tough on Turkey, but that might only strengthen Erdoğan, allowing him to further rally his base by claiming that the West was trying to bully the country.
Similarly, Erdoğan will seize on any opportunity to make his opponents look like foreign stooges. Europeans should avoid playing into his hands and focus on providing Turkey with assistance in recovering from the earthquakes, and on trying to ensure that elections are conducted fairly.
This is the first part of a report from the Centre for European Reform that FTP is reprinting in three parts.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.