Different approaches to the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean from Paris and Berlin showcase quite well how both capitals have moved apart rather than closer together when it comes to foreign policy.
What are the different perspectives in France and Germany and where do we see ground for future convergence? Dr. Dorothée Schmid (ifri) and Kristian Brakel (hbs Istanbul) have answered our questions.
Germany and France are still regarded by many in the EU, albeit grudgingly, as providing the driving force behind the Union and as the two powerhouses when it comes to foreign policy. While Germany might slowly come to accept this role with a certain reluctance, France’s aspiration to lead the EU’s foreign policy is neither new nor abating.
In the case of Turkey, the recent different approaches to the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean from Paris and Berlin showcase quite well how both capitals have moved apart rather than closer together when it comes to foreign policy.
What are the different perspectives in France and Germany and where do we see ground for future convergence?
Is Turkey an unavoidable ally or an emerging challenger for Europe? Should the EU contain or cooperate with Turkey? What makes Turkey so relevant for the EU?
Turkey’s relationship with Europe has two aspects. Historically, Turkey has been a strategic partner to Europe since the Cold War, when it aligned with the West. Since 2005, Turkey has officially entered the accession process, which should logically lead to full membership within the EU structure. Its economic and institutional links with Europe have definitely strengthened over the last 15 years, becoming practically integrated into the European economic zone due to the customs union (1996) and growing capital flows emanating from European countries, Turkey has emerged more recently as an indispensable partner in the field of security and the management of migration. Asking whether Turkey is an ally or a challenger for Europe now highlights the change in the nature of their relationship; political and strategic divergences have taken on more importance in the last decade, as the accession process stalled and new threats materialized in our common neighborhood. Europe now sees Turkey more like a buffer state between the Middle East and Europe than as a piece of the European political puzzle. Unfortunately, these perceptions and attitudes disrupt Turkey’s historical project with the West, feeding resentment and encouraging the search for alternative partners. Confrontation looms and containing Turkey appears difficult given its capacities and specific leverage on priority issues like refugees. We thus need to work on a revamped dialogue to ensure that the gap does not widen. On paper, cooperation remains the best option and is much desired by Europeans, but it should not be pursued at any cost, and certainly not in the face of threats from the Turkish side. This is why the French are in favor of a firm approach, to guarantee mutual respect before engaging in a discussion on common interests, and be able to balance Turkey’s power politics in the regions surrounding Europe (MENA, Africa, and the Caucasus).
The EU and Turkey have worked for decades on an alliance that has not always been easy but was underpinned by common security interests, trade, and larger Turkish diasporas in some EU member states. The problem is that two of these three factors are not as stable as they possibly used to be a decade ago. Since the end of the Cold War Turkey has started to reassess its own security needs anew and especially after the turmoil in the Middle East since 2011 concluded that NATO might not be a sufficient framework on its own to guarantee its interests are best served. This sometimes coupled with a strong nationalist rhetoric and a domestic quest by the government to stay in power at all costs has made Turkey not only a difficult ally to deal with for the EU, but one whose reliability cannot be counted on in many regards. Turkey’s quest to become a more relevant player in the region would be easier to stomach for the EU if Turkish democracy had not eroded so significantly in recent years. While Ankara still points out that a stronger Turkey might be preferable to many of the other rising actors in the region such as the UAE or Russia, the fact that Turkey feels only occasionally bound by its alliance with the EU makes it a potential threat to EU interests. A growing military footprint, which some EU member states are even helping Turkey to acquire, makes Turkey a force to be reckoned with at least in the medium term. However, the decade-long alliance makes it hard to untangle the relationship ad hoc both for Turkey and for the EU. While the EU might officially not support Turkey’s brinkmanship course in theatres like Syria or Libya, the EU has indirectly benefitted from Turkish involvement at a time when no clear and often no unified policy approach from the Europeans was on the table.
Is the EU accession process over for Turkey?
The accession process has now been de facto frozen for more than a decade. Many variables combined to bring both partners to a deadlock: legal issues such as the non-recognition of Cyprus by the Turks; the slowing pace of reforms to import the acquis communautaire in Turkey, because this rather constraining frame does not match Turkey’s need as a powerful emerging country ; and the fact that Turkey does not fulfill the Copenhagen political criteria anymore, which has become obvious with the escalation of repression against Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents since the Gezi episode in 2013 and the failed military coup in 2016. Furthermore, the EU accession process has relatively lost its importance to shape the mutual relationship with the opening of new channels and contracts, such as the migration agreement, or the reviving of older frames – discussions around the modernization of the customs union.
While the European public has always been predominantly opposed to Turkey’s membership, as the Eurobarometer shows, the majority of Turks still express their desire to join the EU. None of the governments want to formally end the process, as such a move would be interpreted as very hostile - a sanction, and could entail more political tensions. Yet in France, voices from the public, NGOs, and some political parties, from both the right and the left side of the spectrum, nowadays call for the suspension of the accession process, or demand at least more conditionality to be imposed on European funding. President Emmanuel Macron himself has suggested several times that the EU–Turkey relationship should be revised in favor of a new kind of “partnership” that would restore each party’s freedom to maneuver and allow at the same time for a more adapted, tailor-made cooperation.
If Turkish accession was ever truly realistic, it is not so now or for the foreseeable future. Problems over the unresolved Cyprus conflict that acted as a – for many EU member states very welcome – roadblock to the accession process for years still exist and even have the potential to escalate again in the coming years. Turkey’s slide towards authoritarianism in recent years and especially since 2013 has made it even more unlikely that the country could meet the required conditions. Despite reiterating time and again that it wants to join the EU the Turkish government has not taken any steps towards closing any of the still open negotiation chapters. Despite the EU’s unwillingness, such unilateral steps are possible and would signal that the EU bid is in earnest. Public support for membership in Turkey is still high at roughly 60% across all parties, with voters for nationalistic parties often surprisingly being greatly supportive. However, neither does the EU currently have the political appetite to include a difficult and economically weakened Turkey in its ranks, nor does Ankara have any interest in handing over control over certain regulatory mechanisms to Brussels. Given the many armed conflicts Turkey is currently embroiled in and the difficult condition of its economy, the EU’s appetite is even lower than it was before. The miserable state of the rule of law in Turkey does provide a perfect argument for more right wing governments that never wanted Turkey to join. However, the mess that the failed accession process leaves behind also means that there is no realistic alternative on the horizon. The often touted upgrade to the customs union lacks any capacity beyond a purely economic one to anchor Turkey to Europe, if this relationship is to be based on the rule of law, not only for companies but also for Turkey’s citizens.
Which 3 key elements will define Turkey’s role vis-à-vis the EU in the coming years?
1. Migration: cooperation with Turkey to manage desired and orderly human flows is necessary, as it is a key transit country for refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa. The current turmoil in Afghanistan places even more emphasis on the issue, as Turkey is geographically more exposed to Afghan migrations, and has firmly voiced its refusal to welcome more refugees after taking in 4 M Syrians since 2011.
2. Energy security: again, Turkey’s geographical location gives it a unique role as a conveyor of resources coming from the East, and its special relationship with Russia is an important parameter in this regard. Turkey has always tried to position itself as an unavoidable transit country, balancing its energy partnerships with power politics. It now needs to regain degrees of freedom vis-à-vis Russia, and Europe could contribute to this.
3. Religion: Turkey’s use of religion as an instrument of soft power has become an area of concern for European diplomats. Ankara is aiming for Sunni leadership in the Middle East and playing the role of protector of the Muslim diasporas in Europe. More generally, Turkey’s imprint on the diaspora of some member states has become a concern, to the point that Emmanuel Macron publicly warned about potential Turkish interference in the next presidential election in France. This instrumentalization of the Turkish diaspora needs to be addressed collectively by Europeans, as it is exacerbating the sensitivities of social communities.
As long as the current Turkish government remains in power, the relationship will remain rocky. Times of cooperation will alternate with times of harsh rhetoric and possible conflict, depending on what serves the Turkish president’s aim of staying in power and on how much the topic of Turkey becomes one in certain EU capitals that can be used to gain voter approval. The three main topics will be: Turkey’s rising military footprint in its region especially in the Middle East and the Balkans, migration and Turkey’s ability to act as the EU’s cerberus, and the Turkish domestic political situation and the drive towards authoritarianism. While EU governments and the Commission often only pay lip service to the last topic, it very much determines the stance of the public debate and the European Parliament. As many needed steps in the EU–Turkey relationship such as the customs’ union upgrade are within the so called co-decision procedure in which both council and parliament have a say, much progress is unlikely.
Which domestic political considerations influence the policies on Turkey?
We have observed a tightening and strict personalization of power in Turkey since the failed coup attempt in 2016. Tayyip Erdogan’s first preoccupation is to protect his position as an enduring leader, maintaining instability in his own ranks and weakening the opposition by all means necessary. The securitization of the Kurdish question has enlarged the rift between the neo-leftist, pro-Kurdish opposition and the “classical” opposition, which responds somewhat positively to the nationalistic ideology of the governing coalition. The state of the economy is a matter of concern but seems to be less of a priority for the AKP than widening the ideological, religious, and ethnic gap.
Assessing the robustness of Tayyip Erdogan’s power system raises controversies in France. While some analysts consider that the radicalization of his policies reflects the inner frailty of the whole AKP edifice, others maintain that no diplomatic calculation can ignore Erdogan’s presence in the medium term. The French governmental sphere thus leans towards a realpolitik approach, pushing for a strict attitude of deterrence that could contain the President’s regional ambitions, notably in the Eastern Mediterranean. Another debate relates to a potential shift in Turkish foreign policy in the case that Erdogan steps down, with most observers deeming that nationalism will remain a core and unifying political resource in Turkey but could be tempered by growing security concerns, leading to a more inward-looking stance.
Since 2013 President Erdogan’s power has been in slow but steady decline. The authoritarian measures taken by the Turkish government have mostly been attempts to halt that decline, but with varying success. While it would be naïve to claim that all of Turkey’s foreign policy has been driven by domestic considerations – many elements, such as in Syria, stem from real challenges to Turkish security interests and might have been handled in a relatively similar way by a non-AKP government – it is clear that staying in power is the overriding interest that determines not necessarily the “if” but the “how” in Turkey’s foreign policy approach. And as much as many EU member states and the Turkish government might hope try to relegate the Turkish human rights situation to the background, the fact that European media and public take a keen interest in the topic means that policy makers for example in Germany will always be under pressure to address the situation, leading to further friction.
The fact that President Erdogan and many of his chauvinistic policies as well as his nationalistic and conservative rhetoric make him an easy target for European politicians wishing to raise their profile as being tough on Turkey will also always affect the space for maneuver European policy on Turkey can have in key states such as in Germany. In France the conflict between President Macron and President Erdogan, observed from a distance, seems to involve some aspects connected to their respective personalities as well. The need to appear tough in comparison with the Rassemblement National adds a further layer.
How do you understand/assess the German/French (meaning: the other one) position vis-à-vis Turkey? Which foreign policy interests drive the priorities in Paris and Berlin vis-à-vis Turkey? What causes divergences in your opinion?
The bilateral relations between France and Turkey are essentially driven by political considerations. The Elysée watches with anxiety Turkey’s growing engagement abroad, especially in the MENA region and more recently in Africa – both areas where French influence was still considered dominant in Paris. Domestic issues have also recently gained attention with many incidents involving Turkish nationals, transposing on French soil the confrontations that are active in Turkey: the Kurdish/Turkish divide, AKP vs. the Gülen movement, and more generally the pro- and anti-AKP Kültürkampf, while the Armenia vs. Turkey dimension is also especially sensitive in France. Currently the most urgent preoccupation for French authorities is Turkey’s attempt to assume the role of the protector of discriminated Muslim citizens. Although Turkish citizens are a minority among Muslims in France, Ankara is seeking to gain sway over Muslim communities. It has been efficient at the grass-root level, through a very active network of associations, via the influence of the “detached imams”, who represent the majority of Islam clerics in France, and entryism at the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM), the official organ of representation for Muslims. The French National Assembly passed in July 2021 an “anti-separatism” bill aimed at taming potential anti-republican activities within specific Islamic communities, which Turkey protested very openly.
France sees Germany as experiencing the same difficulties but with a delay. Berlin has long avoided reflecting on the social difficulties of its numerous Turkish citizens, and only became aware of potential cultural or political clashes after the massive immigration of Syrians started in 2015. In Paris’ eyes, the naivety of the German society and its representatives vis-à-vis immigration issues is melting away slowly but inevitably. Berlin’s diplomatic positions regarding Turkey’s constant provocations are still too cautious for fear of breaking social consensus. Berlin’s systematic soft approach with Ankara is also seen as the result of a lack of experience and interest concerning strategic matters. Moreover, Germany is viewed as always prioritizing its economic interests, not taking into consideration concrete political harm done to its European partners. Most French analysts and officials resent this attitude as hypocritical and counter-productive. The theoretical good cop/ bad cop division of labor does not work in the long run because it exposes European divisions in the eyes of the Turks, giving them leverage on all sides. Finally, the French and the Germans probably envisage the role of the Transatlantic frame, notably NATO, differently with Turkey: Paris sees Turkey as a nationalistic agitator, whose uncontrolled moves jeopardize the consistency of the already weakened alliance, while Berlin puts more trust in the strategic calculations of Washington to ease the Turks back into the Western camp.
German diplomacy is traditionally consensus oriented beyond despair. This is not a problem related to Turkey only, but springs from a decades-old modus operandi in foreign affairs. The inability (due to lack of ideas, combat-ready troops, and material, as well as public support) to project hard power automatically leads to a preference for a soft power approach as does the priority of economic interests abroad. There is no other country with which Turkey maintains such strong and multi-fold relations as it does with Germany. Every economically punitive measure against Turkey sooner or later would affect German companies as well. France is less bound by such considerations. Not only does the country not have such a large Turkish diaspora, but it has other sometimes very vocal interest groups. While for Germany the goal is to maintain and manage the relationship with Turkey, the French interest seems to be to send a very clear signal to Turkey as to where its limits are. Of course the fact that France has a Mediterranean coastline and regards the sea as its natural area of influence makes a difference. However, beyond that there also seems to be a much more security driven policy-making establishment that, possibly influenced by the major Jihadist attacks in recent years, appears to take no issue with despots in the Middle East, as long as they keep the Islamists at bay. The attempt by Turkey to mobilize its own diasporas mostly along nationalistic/religious lines is viewed with deep suspicion in both countries, but in France, where Laicism is a key ingredient of the constitution and a strong right wing party is set to challenge President Macron for the presidency, it takes on a greater urgency.
Where does Turkey fit in the Transatlantic frame? What future for Turkey in NATO?
For France, Turkey’s status in the Transatlantic frame and especially in NATO must be examined critically, as Ankara has manifested an aggressive desire for autonomy that could threaten the interests of the alliance as a community. Turkey’s insistent flirting with Russia and the growing number of its independent military operations sometimes far beyond its borders, in Libya and Karabakh, do break the consensus and potentially undermine the safety of its members, who could be dragged against their will into a war via Turkey’s engagement. Moreover, recurring incidents with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean show that Turkey is actively redefining its national interests and seems prepared to confront militarily its own allies in order to defend those interests.
At the same time, progress made by Turkey both in terms of capacities (personnel and weaponry) and combat experience, in Syria, Libya, Karabakh, and now Iraq, may suggest a new role or at least new missions for Turkey in the future, should it agree on common goals with its NATO allies. Turkey is a natural stakeholder in several conflictual situations in its MENA neighborhood and has displayed both diplomatic skills and military savoir faire in various contexts. Paris thus regards Ankara more and more as a competitor, especially as Tayyip Erdogan has recently tried to establish closer ties to Washington. The issue of Turkey’s reliability is apparently still seen by all Western actors, including the US, as a major impediment to stepping up cooperation in the Middle East and the Black Sea region.
Turkey’s government has been adamant about staying in NATO. While Turkey’s foreign policy adventurism has angered many NATO member states, it is clear that there is no real alternative for Ankara. Possible membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Council as an alternative that was floating around a few years back has not made it back into the discussions in Ankara in recent years. As much as Turkey wants to be a more independent player, it knows that it needs NATO to counterbalance Russia especially in the Black Sea and that for hardware alone there is no quick way to transition out of the alliance quickly. Ankara is banking on its importance for NATO. While its army is large, much of the material is relatively old, but the country is currently on a drive to invest in a new homegrown armament industry. Still, even with the new equipment the country remains reliant on external inputs mostly from other NATO partners, of which Germany is an important supplier. The problem is that without strong American leadership NATO lacks the capacity to reign in Turkish adventurism, which in the medium term has the potential to erode NATO’s cohesion further. The current American strategy seems to be to at least involve Turkey where it can play a positive role such as in Afghanistan and try its best to shift to damage control when it comes to other theatres.
How can German and French approaches to Turkey complement each other?
The de facto distribution of roles between “good cop” and “bad cop” does not appear to be always efficient when negotiating with Ankara, as contradictions arising between Paris and Berlin critically erode their own bilateral credibility with Turkey. It is thus extremely important to maintain a united Franco–German position, which, after Brexit, will be understood in Ankara as expressing the European stance. The French would be ready to coordinate better with the Germans in sharing what they perceive as specific threats (cyber, social, religious…) emanating from Turkey, and think of ways to build a functional strategic partnership, moving slowly beyond the EU perspective. In the eyes of the French, Germany’s specific impact lies in the density of its economic relationship with Turkey, while the French have wider diplomatic stakes in a wider area, beyond EU borders, with Africa now on the radar.
France is right in as far that it seems unwise that EU member states such as Germany have done very little in recent years to reduce their risk exposure vis-à-vis Turkey. The German approach has been to try and put the relationship back on track, which has been partially successful, but mostly due to the dire economic development in Turkey, not because of successful German (or European) diplomacy. Instead of good cop/bad cop diplomacy that is more accidental than planned, it would be wiser to invest in an approach that leverages both countries’ strengths, i.e., France’s military projection possibilities and Germany’s economic ties with Turkey. For this to work both sides need to pay a price: for Germany this might come in losses to its businesses and for France it would mean more coordination on foreign policy in the southern neighborhood and being willing to accept a less security-driven approach there.