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Today’s international agenda looks more and more like popular battles, in which the most pressing task of the combatants and their teams is to crush the opponent in a verbal fight. The genre dictates that confrontations of this kind and intensity follow one of two basic scenarios: either the conflict is followed by a detente and the participants arrive at a consensus; or the dialogue arrives at a deadlock and the next foreign policy confrontation ends with a full stop, rather than a comma.

Taking the famous Russian saying “the Orient is a delicate matter” into account, it is becoming quite obvious that the Orient is, indeed, “delicate” in both the literal and figurative senses. The specific features of the negotiation process with official Ankara create significant aggravating circumstances: the threads for finding a consensus and mutually profitable solutions to factors that determine the political agenda are as delicate as ever. This is particularly relevant for Turkey’s current relations with the West in general, and with the European Union in particular. While in the past compartmentalizing inter-country relations into individual components allowed the train of negotiations to go from point A to point B without a particular “train car” representing a certain part of those relations, today, such “detachable cars” are few and far between. Ultimately, when the political “engines,” country’s leaders and the ruling elite arrive at point B, they turn out to be incapable of arriving at a consensus, and the search for solutions on the “detached cars” stretches out for many years.

At the same time, it is quite apparent that Russia is partially involved in the processes that happen within EU–Turkey relations. We are talking primarily here about Russia’s role in the energy sector and its military aspect, which is becoming more and more relevant due to the construction of TurkStream and the future shipments of a cutting-edge missile defence system to a NATO member state. The political crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West in connection with the “Skripal case” also involves Russia in a part of the foreign political “round.” This was clearly demonstrated, among other things, during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara on April 3–4, 2018.

Since the tensions in EU–Turkey relations are dragging on and, as far as Ankara is concerned, there have been no significant positive developments, the question arises as to what stage Europe–Turkey relations are actually experiencing. Will Ankara and the European Union be able to return to the previous level of dialogue and find a way to settle their differences? Could the current stage be termed stagnation or the calm before another storm?

EU-Turkey: Lie, but Stay  

On March 26, a working meeting was held in the Bulgarian city of Varna that some media outlets later dubbed an EU–Turkey summit. The meeting was attended by President of the European Council Donald Tusk, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov and an impressively large Turkish delegation headed by President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among others. This meeting was largely symbolic in nature and was not a large-scale event for the European Union. The principal EU summit attended by heads of state and government was held on March 22–23; however, due to a large number of differences between Ankara and several EU member states, Turkey was not invited to attend. It is worth noting that, back in March 2016, as part of signing the “migration agreement” with the European Union, Ankara demanded, among other things, that an EU–Turkey summit be held. This summit has not yet taken place. The meeting in Varna, meant primarily for the domestic Turkish audience and EU member states, was intended to showcase the intention of both parties to travel the path of normalizing relations and continuing the dialogue. However, a number of significant aspects must be understood in order to grasp the true meaning of the meeting and the overall trends in the development of EU–Turkey relations.

​​First, although Turkey is not an EU member state, it has long played a significant role in the internal policy of the European Union’s, which has prompted different reactions from the 28 member states. Yet even those countries that, for various reasons, do not want a close rapprochement with Ankara, much less grant it EU membership, recognize the role that Turkey plays in the resolution of one of the existential problems which Brussels has had to deal with since the situation in Syria started to deteriorate – namely, the migration crisis. It is no secret that Turkey assumed the role of a lifebuoy ring, drastically reducing the flow of migrants into Europe. Before the agreement was signed, more than 7000 migrants were arriving in Greece from Turkey on a daily basis. After March 2016, this number dropped to 93. In 2017, the European Union declared its readiness to distribute 160,000 of the migrants that had already arrived among the member states, but in reality, the figure amounted to 32,000. Thus, today the principal “concentration” of migrants, more than 4 million people, is in Turkey, which suits the European Union perfectly.

In turn, Brussels is bound by the agreement to disburse 6 billion euros, which was to be distributed in several stages. However, Ankara has announced that the European Union is effectively failing to honour its commitments, and that thus far, Turkey has only received 1.7 billion euros, which is in violation of the agreement. At the same time, the European Union has unequivocally hinted at the need to set up transparent financial bodies; the money will be transferred into the accounts of these financial bodies to finance specific projects for which the money is intended.

Relations between the two sides are far from harmonious: Turkey and the European Union are effectively holding each other hostage. Despite the reluctance of several EU states to have Turkey as a partner, the European Union is being forced to resist pressure from these countries and search for compromise solutions to the crisis, fearing that turkey could at any moment reopen its borders and thus bring a new wave of migrants flowing into Europe once again. Ankara, in turn, has an ace up its sleeve and is trying to play the migrant card on terms that the Turkish leadership deems most profitable.

The migration crisis has forced Brussels to acknowledge the significant role that Turkey plays in the resolution of the situation and see Ankara as a crucial party in the EU–Turkey dialogue. However, both Turkey’s status as a candidate for EU membership and the issue of the EU expansion are gradually receding into the background. In recent years, the European Union’s official documents have mostly characterized Ankara as a “conduit” of the migration agreement, not a close partner. Thus, we may state that, de facto, negotiations have been frozen. But the absence of an official announcement to that effect demonstrates that the European Union’s hands are tied by millions of migrants on the Turkish border, who can change their location at any moment.

Second, in recent years, Brussels has viewed Turkey as a “buffer zone” separating Europe from the highly volatile Middle East and ensures the European people a measure of security. In that respect, we may talk about a forcible change in the European Union’s paradigm of interests and a striving on the part of the European Union striving to find a compromise with official Ankara, since if Turkey continues to drift away from the European Union and enters a stage of instability, then that same instability will gradually spill over into the continent. Commenting on EU–Turkey relations and European concerns that Turkey is not travelling the path towards European integration, Soli Özel, an eminent Turkish expert in transatlantic relations, essentially coined a new term: the “Middle-Easternization” of Turkey.

We should point out several factors here. In developing relations with Turkey, the European Union, as an umbrella organization, protects the interests of the entire bloc and naturally may not let Ankara out of its sight completely. However, if we consider the stance of the European Union’s main actors, we will discover that each state has its own interests in improving or, on the contrary, exacerbating relations with Turkey.

Going back to the working meeting attended by Recep Erdogan in Varna on March 26, it becomes apparent that it could hardly have been held anywhere else other than Bulgaria, which shares a common border with Turkey and which, therefore, has greater security concerns than those states that are further removed from the epicentre (Ankara). As for the other states, the latest audit of EU– Turkey relations published in March by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) allows the following conclusion to be drawn. Due to current security challenges, Greece and Cyprus are, despite their significant differences with Turkey, “in favour” of normalizing relations with that country, rather than “against” it. This fact is confirmed by the situation surrounding the territorial waters and the airspace between Turkey and Greece, which has acquired increasingly harsh connotations recently. Cyprus’ motives are also apparent. Gas drilling is going full-tilt in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Ankara is of the opinion that the energy resources should belong to the entire population of the island of Cyprus, including the still unrecognized Northern Cyprus. Turkey’s military power is superior to that of Cyprus – a fact that Turkey makes well known, thereby exacerbating the already troubled situation.

The audit states that Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, all of which have a sizeable Turkish diaspora, bear an additional political load that largely precludes the possibility of a profound and long-lasting crisis involving Turkey taking place. Moreover, the 2017 referendum demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of ethnic Turks support Recep Erdogan. Italy, France and Spain are largely guided by economic considerations and the Realpolitik concept. At the same time, “junior” EU states such as Malta, Estonia and Slovenia, could support Turkey’s membership in the European Union for economic reasons and to create a counterbalance to the European Union major political players.

The conclusion naturally follows keeping Ankara in an “any day now” situation with regard to Turkey’s membership in the European Union without either freezing the issue or moving it forward in any meaningful way actually works in Brussels’ favour. The ECFR audit demonstrates that, of the top EU officials polled, only 36 per cent were in favour of opening new chapters in negotiations with Turkey, while 57 per cent would prefer to put a freeze on the process. The statistics demonstrate the following: in 2017, 84 per cent of German residents polled were against Turkey’s EU membership; 70 per cent noted that such a negative response has largely been shaped over the last two years, that is, after the failed coup and the domestic events that followed. It is clear that, to paraphrase the words of the Russian poet Ivan Krylov, the “companions” within the European Union “don’t agree”– Turkey may be a strategic partner, but it is not a member of the team.

Turkey-EU: The Situation is as Clear as Mud

Despite the prolonged crisis, Ankara, as well as its European “partners,” has several reasons to demonstrate interest in establishing a dialogue.

First, economic considerations play a significant role in the situation to which Ankara is hostage, since the EU countries account for approximately half of Turkey’s trade turnover. The EU is still Turkey’s leading trade partner, account for 68 per cent of all foreign direct investment into the Turkosh economy. At the same time, capital drain from Turkey has increased significantly, and its foreign debt (as of early 2018) was $438 billion, which is about three times greater than the country’s exports, despite the economic growth data the government cites.

The difficult domestic situation and the lack of certainty on the part of Turkey’s European partners in the rule of law in the country contribute to the fact that Turkey is slowly but surely removing itself from the list of states that have a positive investment outlook. The world’s largest rating agencies Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch cut Turkey’s outlook to negative. However, in the short term, the image of a country with a positive view of the common future that Ankara is creating both for the domestic audience and for several EU member states offers some political guarantees that may mitigate the economic uncertainty.

Second, of no lesser importance is the reaction of the domestic audience, the target of President Erdogan’s statements about establishing dialogue with Brussels. Even though the Turkish media did not mince words in their coverage of Ankara’s conflict with Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam, the 2017 surveys by the Economic Development Foundation showed that 78.9 per cent of respondents favour Turkey’s membership in the European Union. This figure grew significantly in two years: in 2015, it was 61.8 per cent. Clearly, the authorities cannot merely ignore this fact, and it will ultimately result in Ankara’s formal rapprochement with the European Union.

In this area, Turkey insists on several principal demands that are unlikely to produce specific results in the foreseeable future. For instance, updating the European Union–Turkey Customs Union established back in 1995; introducing the visa-free regime that was supposed to have been introduced when the migration agreement was signed in 2016.

There is a significant problem in the disputes concerning several sectors covered by the Customs Union, such as customer services, agriculture, etc. However, it should in all fairness be noted that there is a clear asymmetry in EU–Turkey relations: Ankara complies with the European Union’s common trade policy, but it may not participate in decision-making processes. For instance, the United Kingdom initiated Brexit and is in talks with Brussels on the future economic development. Even though economic relations between London and Ankara are strong, Turkey has no legitimate right to defend its stance on issues of further cooperation. Moreover, there is essentially no independent body that could resolve emerging disputes.

In order to set the process of updating the Customs Union in motion, the ministers of economy of the EU countries should give appropriate instructions to the European Commission. However, the current difficulties in bilateral relations make this process more and more painfully politicized. This EU policy is exemplified in the coalition paper of the new German government that says that the Customs Union cannot be updated until there is confidence in the supremacy of law in Turkey.

Russia–Turkey–EU: Friends Don’t Abandon Friends in Need and Friends Don’t Ask for Too Much

​​The negative development of relations between Turkey and the West has left Ankara searching for a new foothold, and Russia has come to fill that role. It is vitally important to understand that Ankara is moving towards a rapprochement with Moscow not out of “inner convictions,” but due to the forced necessity and due to the cooling off of its relations with the European Union and the United States. Tracing the true causal connections, we may turn to the 2000s when Russia–Turkey relations progressed steadily, and the West did not criticize the Moscow–Ankara rapprochement so harshly. Today, when Turkey and the European Union have deep-running differences on the matter of their future collaboration, Ankara is reaching agreements with Russia in the critical areas of military and energy cooperation, which cannot fail to annoy the West. For instance, EU–Turkey relations could not but be affected by the agreements recently concluded between Russia and Turkey and confirmed during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara on April 3–4 on the sale of S-400 missile defence systems to Turkey, the launch of construction of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, and the progress in defining the final provisions of the land section of TurkStream.

The current cooperation between Russia and Turkey opens the door to the Middle East for Moscow’s two most important foreign policy instruments – arms and energy – bolstering the country’s interests in the region. In this connection, Russia’s “marketing move” of signing contracts for the sale of S-400 missile systems to Turkey cannot be ignored. Ultimately, over a very short period of time, the interest of Persian Gulf states in Russian weapons mushroomed. Moscow is in talks to sell new Russian weapons to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, etc., despite the strong positions that the United States enjoys in those countries. Thus, the realities are changing sharply: if Turkey joined NATO in 1952 out of fear of the USSR, today, Ankara – a NATO member state – is essentially speeding up Moscow’s return to the Middle East.

On the other hand, Moscow is strengthening its positions on Turkey’s domestic energy market, which, given the construction of TurkStream and Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, will only increase Turkey’s dependence on Russia. Moreover, given the fact that the Syrian crisis is largely conducive to the Russia–Turkey alliance, the mutual interest of the two countries in each other is apparent. As can be seen from Turkey’s stance on the “Skripal case,” Ankara did not support its western partners, nor did it impose any sanctions on Russia; more than that, it gave Vladimir Putin a special welcome gave Vladimir Putin a special welcome during his first foreign visit after re-election.

Today’s international relations are, on the one hand, in a profound crisis; on the other, they are moving at an incredible pace. Overnight, “friends” become “enemies” and then, over a short time, the same actors are transformed from “enemies” into “friends” once again.

Nine years ago, President Barack Obama made his first foreign state visit to Ankara. Speaking at the Turkish parliament that had then been run on the system of checks and balances, he proposed a “model partnership” for Turkey. Today, when the Turkish parliament is, to use the words of the Russian politician Boris Gryzlov, not a place for discussions and when the state slowly drifts from parliamentary rule to presidential rule, Recep Tayyip Erdogan received the re-elected Russian President in the President’s Palace. One can only guess at the partnership model Vladimir Putin has proposed to the Turkish President. It is well known what ultimately came out of the relations between the Turkish President and his American counterpart. In what manner President Erdogan will construct the dialogue with President Putin? Will Turkey become part of “Team Europe” or part of the Putin Team? This foreign political puzzle will need to be resolved in the nearest future.

Turkey vs. the EU: Still arguing? Russians Are Coming…

April 12, 2018  -  RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council)

Dr. Kerim Has