Turkey’s European Goals: Prospects and Impediments as Seen From Brussels

In rather bold fashion, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stole the show at NATO’s July 2023 summit in Vilnius by seemingly agreeing to Sweden’s accession to the North Atlantic alliance, reopening a dialogue with U.S. President Joe Biden, and putting back on the table the issue of Ankara’s accession to the EU. This created the ephemeral impression that a new era of rapprochement was opening between Turkey, the EU, and the United States.

A few weeks later, after several developments in the Gulf and the Black Sea as well as the first formal statement by the new Turkish foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, the main axes of Turkey’s foreign policy have emerged in a different light. Turkey has declared its strong ambition to pursue a robust and independent foreign policy, struck new deals with Gulf countries, pursued a protracted dialogue with Russia, lambasted what it calls the EU’s strategic blindness, and continued to reinforce a governance system that is the exact opposite of what the EU requires from candidate countries. As such, Turkey’s formal pursuit of EU accession sounds like a complete policy contradiction.

Turkey’s Political Direction in 2023–28

After Turkey’s May 2023 presidential and legislative elections, the first emergency was to reform the country’s economic approach, in particular the detrimental policy, long imposed by Erdoğan himself, of keeping interest rates low amid rising inflation. Given the systemic risk of this policy for the banking system, international financial circles saw the appointments of Mehmet Şimşek as economy and finance minister and Hafize Gaye Erkan as central bank governor as hopeful signs of a return to economic orthodoxy.

The overall approach taken by Ankara since May looks like a reversal of the positions expressed by the government during the election campaign, although Erdoğan has affirmed that his views on interest rates have not changed. Indeed, the initial interest rate modifications made in July reflected a gradual rather than a big-bang approach in order not to look like a complete reversal of previous presidential decisions. Şimşek, for his part, is aware that corrective measures would come only in installments—in fact, the main interest rate was increased a second time on August 24 to 25 percent, compared with 8.5 percent before the elections—and that Turkey needs to rebuild trust with European investors. He has pointed to 2026 as the goal for the country’s economic recovery: “We will see positive developments in the economy as of 2026. In two and a half to three years we will be in a better position than today.”

Seen from Brussels, the political priority of the new presidential term is the March 2024 local elections. To reverse the vexing setback suffered by the government in the last local elections in 2019, the leadership’s proclaimed goal is to regain the metropolitan municipalities it lost then, in particular the two largest cities: Istanbul, the cradle of Erdoğan’s political career and the country’s economic capital; and Ankara, the political capital. To win back the Greater Istanbul Municipality, the leadership will probably prefer to see the incumbent mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, whose trial for insulting a public official is currently at the appeal stage, definitively condemned and banned from running for public office.

The third major component of the 2023–28 presidential term is the consolidation of Turkey’s centralized system of government. With a victory in the May elections that was more widescale than observers expected and a weak opposition, the leadership has no compelling reason to revert to a democratic agenda. Hence, Erdoğan is reinforcing his control of the country’s management, starting with appointments in the presidential cabinet. Appointments in the armed forces, the police, and the provincial governorships are moving in the same direction. In addition, two prominent ministers in the previous cabinet—Hulusi Akar, a former defense minister, and Süleyman Soylu, a former interior minister—have left the inner circle of power.

Overall, the only real innovation since the May 2023 elections has been a gradual revision of the country’s economic policy. This is probably the most significant concession from the president, who is otherwise sticking to his domestic political choices, in particular the absence of any positive movement on the rule of law and the consolidation of an institutional autocracy.

The Main Axes of Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Turkey’s political landscape is becoming increasingly conservative and nationalist, and Ankara is making a predictable march toward a more autonomous and Turkey-centric foreign policy. Now, with the steps taken since the May elections and Fidan’s comprehensive foreign policy speech on August 7, which was extensively reported by the Anadolu press agency and Al Monitor, observers can take a closer look at what is in the making.

Under the presidential motto of “the Century of Türkiye,” foreign policy will become more autonomous and focused on the country’s own interests. Turkey will aim to be “a fully independent, effective, and influential actor, which sets the international agenda,” in the words of the foreign minister. The message is clear: foreign powers, big or small, Eastern or Western, will not push Ankara in a direction it considers harmful to its interests. In that vein, foreign policy will become more security heavy by giving a higher priority to the fight against terrorism and using arms sales and military agreements as foreign policy tools.

As a first illustration, the Turkish president’s July 2023 tour of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) resulted in several economic and industrial deals: a financial accord with Qatar, a drone sale to Saudi Arabia, and a set of agreements with the UAE worth over $50 billion. This tour was meant not only to raise vast amounts of funds to boost the fragile Turkish economy but also to give a signal that Turkey’s financial outreach is much wider than that of the City of London or Wall Street and that the country’s geopolitical importance is well understood by Gulf monarchies. Separately, an as yet unconfirmed agreement on a ninety-nine-year lease for a naval base at Al Khums, Libya, is reported to be in the making, in addition to the existing air base at Al Watiya.

The broad meaning of this new foreign policy focus is that Turkey will not shy away from launching itself on a vastly different geopolitical path from its traditional allies when it judges it necessary to do so.

Predictably, some elements of Turkish foreign policy will encounter increased difficulties compared with the recent past. The first is Turkey’s pressure on other NATO members to alter their policies on Kurdish activism in Europe. Despite the Vilnius charm offensive, the deadlock over Sweden’s accession to NATO is continuing because of Turkey’s objections to the liberty granted by Stockholm to operatives of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gülen movement, a former political ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that Ankara has designated a terrorist movement.

When it comes to Syria, the divergences between Ankara and Washington over the role of Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in northern Syria will continue or, perhaps, worsen. The Turkish government’s policy of voluntary return for Syrian refugees will stumble over the absence of a peace settlement in their country. All the while, the Syrian leadership’s precondition for initiating a normalization process with Ankara—that Turkish troops must leave Syria—will remain. Turkey has called such a withdrawal “unimaginable.”

Ankara’s nonrecognition of the Republic of Cyprus and, more recently, its promotion of a two-state solution for the divided island will prolong the deadlock with the EU over this issue. The violent incident that took place on August 18 inside the buffer zone between Turkish Cypriot personnel and UN peacekeepers will create additional difficulties. The assault was strongly condemned by the UN secretary general, who attributed it to the Turkish Cypriot security personnel, while the authorities of both the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey blamed the UN peacekeepers for the incident.

Relations with Greece are the only topic that has benefited from a cautiously optimistic approach from the Turkish and Greek leaderships, which seek to build on the so-called earthquake diplomacy in the wake of the February 2023 quake in southern Turkey. Bilateral discussions resumed on September 5, as illustrated in a post on X, formerly Twitter, by Fidan: “We are now in a new and positive stage in our relations with our neighbour & ally, Greece. Revitalization of high-level contacts & dialogue channels are positive developments. Today, we confirmed our mutual will to sustain this momentum.”

Two topics remained unclear in Fidan’s foreign policy speech. The first is the sustainability of the Turkey-Russia relationship over time, especially if the war in Ukraine lasts for years or reaches a complete deadlock. Currently, Ankara intends to stick to its existing policy of balancing relations with Russia and Ukraine—and the West more generally. Turkey stresses its potential intermediary role for both the resumption of the July 2022 deal, presently suspended by Moscow, between Ukraine and Russia to allow exports of Ukrainian grain and a wider peacemaking process.

In both cases, the difficulties are immense, as serious divergences between Turkey and Russia have recently emerged. On August 13, Russian forces inspected a Turkish-owned bulk carrier after firing warning shots, prompting Ankara to protest. In a separate development on August 17, a container ship sailed from Ukraine to Istanbul through a new corridor despite the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. The Black Sea may well become an area of acute contention between Russia and Turkey, especially as Ankara is pressed to accommodate Moscow’s requests in a new version of the grain deal. Discussions held on September 4 between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended in deadlock over Russia’s requests, while Moscow insisted on creating a gas hub in Turkey to supply Southeast European countries, a mechanism that could allow Russia to circumvent Western sanctions.

Second, from a European or Western standpoint, the missing ingredient in Turkish foreign policy is the rule of law. That is not only because this is an inescapable requirement from the EU as well as from Western investors and business operators but also because Turkish society will not be at peace with itself until the rule of law is restored. For some in Turkey, the country needs a better democratic architecture for its own good: according to political analyst Murat Yetkin, Turkey “needs to improve its democracy standards and human rights record, for the sake of the Turkish citizens, not the EU.”

Turkey’s Approach to the EU

The Turkish president’s narrative in Vilnius, where he linked Sweden’s entry into NATO with Turkey’s entry into the EU, came out of the blue. As the two accession processes are totally distinct legal issues, the EU and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promptly dismissed the Turkish leadership’s request to make the former dependent on the latter.

This request was followed on August 7 by Fidan’s formal expression of Turkey’s approach to the EU: in his words, “the European Union cannot truly be a global actor without Türkiye” and Turkey’s disrupted EU accession process is tantamount to “strategic blindness.” This statement seemed to run counter to Ankara’s proclaimed ambition to revamp its EU accession process.

Having been in use for several years, Turkey’s belittling narrative of the EU’s “strategic blindness” cannot simply be dismissed as an off-the-cuff expression. It sounds like deeply rooted official thinking, or at least an essential part of the head of state’s narrative. The phrase may have domestic political benefits, as it flatters the prevailing nationalist mood and perpetuates the image of an inimical Brussels. Given the local elections scheduled for March 2024, these words against the EU might simply be another tool in the populist electoral toolbox. Nevertheless, few in Brussels or EU national capitals genuinely believe that Erdoğan has any real intention of dismantling his constitutional edifice to satisfy EU criteria on the rule of law.

Some observers contend that Western countries’ relations with Erdoğan’s Turkey can only be transactional at this point. According to Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Erdogan has . . . little patience for Western lectures on human rights. Short-term improvements in human rights and democratic freedoms in Turkey are thus unlikely, no matter what the West does. . . . Creating a more realistic relationship with a post-Western Turkey, one based on mutually beneficial transactions, would be a good place to start.”

Others argue that since the May elections, there has been a distinct tendency in Ankara to patch up relations with Western countries, but only on Erdoğan’s terms. This assessment might prove true given Erdoğan’s ultimate control of policy decisions and inflexibility when it comes to political diversity and dissenting opinions. But the geopolitical picture is wider than Turkey.

The New Geopolitical Context

War is back on the European continent, and Russia is up against Ukraine, NATO, and the EU. This is an entirely new geopolitical context, and it inevitably reshuffles the cards for EU-Turkey relations.

The return of war has made Europe-wide unity an absolute political priority, as illustrated by the large number of decisions made by the EU, NATO, and the broader West to support Ukraine by providing armaments and macrofinancial support and to counter Russia’s actions by reorganizing energy supplies and imposing sanctions.

In the wake of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, European leaders made two political decisions of historic significance: the EU gave Moldova and Ukraine the status of candidate countries, while the leaders of Finland and Sweden renounced their countries’ neutrality and applied to join NATO. Similarly, the rule-of-law crisis between the EU and Hungary and Poland has shown that under duress, European governments and institutions can reinforce their political resolve.

The actions taken by European leaders in these diverse policy domains follow a common thread. Challenged by Russia, the EU is firmly upholding its political, legal, and economic standards: respect for territorial integrity as well as respect for the rule of law, including human rights, an independent judiciary, free media and civil society, and the fight against corruption. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has to an extent reinforced the EU’s cohesiveness and unity, though with notable difficulties when it comes to Hungary.

By contrast, and despite official narratives to the contrary, the degree of convergence between Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture and the EU’s requirements of candidate countries has been drastically reduced. This trend was formalized with Turkey’s 2017 constitutional reform and was illustrated by the 2023 electoral process when the government made last-minute changes to the electoral law in favor of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is allied to the AKP, and the leading opposition candidate for the presidency, İmamoğlu, was condemned on spurious charges before the election.

The real issue is whether these policy choices are worthy of Turkey’s ambition to be a global player. Indeed, Ankara’s policy direction has a price: without a real move on the rule of law and emblematic measures such as the final closure of the cases against İmamoğlu and other high-profile prisoners, including Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala, no close relationship will develop between the EU and Turkey, and the country’s relations within NATO will also be affected. The personal standing of Turkey’s president will inevitably be impacted, too.

In such a context, the policy decisions of Turkey—a member of NATO and the Council of Europe—are now observed in Europe from a different standpoint. The benchmark here is not just a specific political development, such as an extended agreement on refugees, a revamped customs union, or a prolonged deadlock over Sweden’s accession to NATO. Rather, discussions will hinge on whether a far broader understanding can be reached with Turkey on the continent’s emerging political, security, and economic architecture.

In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only one development in a rapidly changing global geopolitical environment. The Gulf monarchies want a bigger say in world affairs and have used their financial clout for political gain. With Turkey, they have signed deals (the details of which are often unknown to outsiders) that come with requests for a return to orthodox policies and an ambition to acquire profitable Turkish firms. The Gulf states’ political agendas cover countries in which Turkey is active: Libya, Syria, and others in Africa. The Gulf monarchies may have entered into strategic partnerships with Turkey, but not just on Turkish terms.

Similarly, the notion of the global South—a concept challenged by some—expanded on August 24 when the BRICS club comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa accepted six new members: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Several more countries had also applied. Turkey has global leadership ambitions, but it is far from alone in hoping to influence international affairs.

To put it differently, Turkey’s stated goal of strengthening its “position as a fully independent, effective, and influential actor, which sets the international agenda, and sets or breaks the game when necessary” requires a high degree of consistency between its policy decisions and its existing role as a player on the European continent and in NATO. In particular, in a wider competition for global leadership, countries that aim at setting the agenda will have to make proposals and rally others around them—that is, in a constructive way. Countries that opt just to be disruptive, such as Russia, will be those that break the game. Being both constructive and disruptive will harm policy consistency.

In the economic domain, Turkey will have to ponder its crucial links and shared interests with Europe, especially the EU, in terms of trade, investment, technology, innovation, norms, and standards. In these vital areas, given its economic fundamentals, Turkey has few alternatives at its disposal. Beyond energy and politically motivated cash transfers, Russia has next to nothing to offer Turkey when it comes to industrial development, research, or exports. Gulf countries have cash but no technology. As financial operators looking for a return on their investments, they are not keen to give blind cash handouts and may prefer to acquire the most profitable state-owned companies. Other Middle Eastern and African countries certainly offer opportunities in terms of trade and defense sales, but they will not propel Turkey into the world’s top ten economies—as per Ankara’s stated goal.

Turkey needs to rebuild confidence with European business operators and financial institutions to restart the flow of short-term funds and foreign direct investment. The potential for technology and innovation exchanges with the EU is vast, especially at a time when supply chains are being restructured after the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing recession.

In view of Turkey’s domestic evolution and global changes, the question arises of whether EU accession was ever the ideal policy vehicle for the country. The EU’s accession requirements are simply incompatible with Erdoğan’s chosen governance structures and style. Yet, the enlargement criteria will not change, as stated by EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi on September 12. Outside the EU accession framework, the rule-of-law requirements of governments and business circles will also remain. How to reconcile these seemingly incompatible tracks—rule-of-law requirements and institutionalized autocracy—will be the key topic of future discussions between Ankara and Brussels.

Ultimately, the EU will not collapse if Turkey prefers a different model of government. Turkey will not collapse either, but without a normalized relationship with the EU it may be a less relevant actor on the global stage.

The world is witnessing momentous geopolitical changes in continental Europe and beyond. In parallel, Turkey is reorienting its foreign policy and expanding its global role. Turkey is obviously free to follow its own trajectory. What remains to be seen is how the country will balance its global geopolitical ambitions with its European neighborhood and its core economic interests and constraints. Amid a massive upheaval in world geopolitics, it has become crucial for all players to make a workable assessment of international realities.

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