Is Washington pushing Turkey and Europe toward each other?

Al Monitor
Is Washington pushing Turkey and Europe toward each other?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking new allies to offset Ankara’s worsening ties with Washington, which have come to a breaking point over Turkey’s continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Al Monitor reports in its article Is Washington pushing Turkey and Europe toward each other? that Erdogan’s remarks show that his heart is set on Russia and China.

Ironic as it may seem, though, Turkey’s crisis with the United States is rekindling its ties with Europe, even though these ties had hit rock bottom not so long ago. Recent European statements of support for Turkey and Erdogan’s phone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron last week have raised hopes that Turkey-EU ties may be revived.

This seemingly ironic situation is not new, though. Turkey’s relationships with Europe and the United States have traditionally been characterized by a “seesaw effect.” When ties with one side were strained, relations with the other side showed signs of improvement, regardless of what differences there may be.

We saw this last year when Turkey’s ties with key EU members appeared to be heading to a wall at high speed. Tensions peaked after Erdogan compared German and Dutch leaders to Nazis. He was fuming because his Justice and Development Party was banned from canvassing expatriate Turks in Germany and Holland for the referendum aimed at making him Turkey’s first executive president.

Erdogan relied on a close relationship with President Donald Trump to counterbalance the deteriorating state of ties with Europe. He appeared to be succeeding, too, when he traveled to Washington last September for his first official meeting with Trump.

“Erdogan has become a friend of mine,” Trump said during the visit and added, “I think now we’re as close as we’ve ever been.” Developments, however, proved this reliance on Trump to be highly misplaced. Verbal promises from Moscow and Beijing to help Ankara overcome its current economic difficulties enable Erdogan to argue that Turkey is not without alternatives in the world.

Nevertheless, the logic of replacing Turkey’s “strategic partnership” with the United States with similar partnerships with Russia and China has yet to be proven, especially since this would also undermine Ankara’s political and military ties with Europe.

Many analysts believe that a major strategic shift toward Russia by Ankara would be counterintuitive. They generally agree that Turkey’s current relationship with Russia is devoid of strategic content and is essentially driven by the problems both countries have with Europe and the United States.

Ankara’s relationship with Moscow is not as easy as appearances may suggest, given the two countries’ clashing interests in the Middle East and the Black Sea region, which are often whitewashed.

Differences remain, however, on a broad range of issues from Syria to the Crimea and from Ukraine to the Caucasus. Not wanting to anger Moscow at a time when it needs its political support, Ankara remains largely mute on these sensitive issues.

There are also the major energy projects the two countries are jointly engaged in that help contain their differences. The potential for problems, however, is never far from the surface.

This was demonstrated when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet on a mission in Syria in 2015, forcing ties into a freefall overnight.

The economic sanctions Moscow imposed in retaliation did not just harm Turkey’s economy, but also proved that Turkey’s ability to make any headway with regard to its Syria policy depended on good ties with Russia. If there is a Turkish military presence in Syria today, it is because Moscow has allowed it.

Erdogan was eventually forced to swallow his pride and apologize to President Vladimir Putin over the jet incident, but Russia’s still-unfolding plans for Syria remain a source of concern for Ankara.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was the first to break the ice with Ankara recently when he tweeted his pleasure on Aug. 14 over the decision by a Turkish court to release two Greek soldiers being held by Turkey for months.

The soldiers were arrested after they accidentally strayed across the border into Turkey. Their release was taken as a sign that Turkey was seeking improved ties with Europe.

“Delighted by the news of the imminent release of the 2 Greek soldiers detained in Turkey,” Juncker’s Twitter message read. “Turkey has nothing to fear from its European neighbours. The EU will remain engaged in this strategic partnership. We want to see a democratic, stable & prosperous Turkey,” he added.

A day after the release of the Greek soldiers, another Turkish court released Taner Kilic, the head of Amnesty International in Turkey, who was arrested last year for allegedly being part of the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.

Erdogan’s phone conversations with Merkel and Macron last week were taken as a concrete sign of a thaw in Turkey’s ties with Europe.

Erdogan is also due to visit Germany in late September. His visit has gained added significance for Ankara given the strains that exist between Europe and the United States.

Meanwhile, Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, who has been appointed as Turkey’s new economic supremo, was also working the phones with his German and French counterparts, laying the groundwork for high-level economic talks in the coming days and weeks.

Remarks by various European politicians — such as Andrea Nahles, the former head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party who is currently a minister in Merkel’s government — that stress Turkey’s continuing strategic importance for Europe are also encouraging for Ankara.

There are important reasons for Europe’s support, of course, such as the vast debts Turkey has incurred with European banks, the equally vast investments by European countries in Turkey, the voluminous trade with Turkey and the continuing need to cooperate with Ankara against illegal immigration and terrorism related to developments in the Middle East.

The crisis with the United States is also focusing the attention of Erdogan’s supporters on the importance of reviving relations with Europe.

Burhanettin Duran, the general coordinator of the government-sponsored SETA foundation, maintains that Europe’s own difficulties with the Trump administration are pushing it closer to Turkey.

“Having hit the nadir as far as tensions are concerned, Turkish-EU ties could now be on the eve of opening a new phase,” Duran wrote for the pro-government daily Sabah.

Duran laid the responsibility of opening this new phase on Merkel and Macron, and he called on them to support visa liberalization for Turks and the overhauling of Turkey’s customs union with the EU.

Hurriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi, another avid Erdogan supporter, agrees that a major opportunity has arrived for reviving ties with Europe, but unlike Duran, he suggests that the onus is on Turkey to take advantage of this opportunity.

In his column, Selvi referred to the release of the Greek soldiers and Kilic as “the first steps in normalizing Turkish-EU relations.”

He added, however, that releasing prominent Turkish businessman Osman Kavala and opposition deputy Enis Berberoglu, who are both being held on terrorism charges that many believe are baseless, would expedite the opening of a new chapter with Europe. “Without improving our human rights report card, we can’t improve our ties with the EU,” Selvi argued.

Others also caution that there are limits to how far ties with Europe can go given the current state of democracy and human rights in Turkey. These remains under strong European scrutiny.

Asli Aydintasbas, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued in her column for the opposition daily Cumhuriyet that the importance of public opinion in Europe can’t be overlooked.

This is why, she wrote, key European countries are calling on Ankara to help them, by taking steps that will cause a positive atmosphere in European public opinion so that they can help Turkey in turn. She said releasing intellectuals from prison would have an impact in this regard, but she remained skeptical. “It appears difficult for [the Erdogan] regime to turn its course back to democracy and reform,” she wrote.

Erdogan undoubtedly also knows that good relations with Europe ultimately requires this, which could be the reason he continues to search for new allies outside Turkey’s traditional Western fold. Ultimately, though, maintaining strategic ties with the West remains Turkey’s best bet.