Ankara’s democratic backsliding and its ambitious foreign policy remain a concern for many within the EU. At the same time, the EU’s political class is also aware that a functioning relationship with Turkey is not a choice but inevitable.
Joseph Borrell, addressing the EU Parliament’s plenary in September 2020, listed Turkey alongside Russia and China as “three re-emerging empires” that are threats to Europe. EU-Turkey relations have been relatively calm since then. Cautious anticipation prevails within European capitals as Turkey is moving towards an election in 2023. On the one hand, Ankara’s democratic backsliding and its ambitious foreign policy remain a concern for many within the EU. At the same time, the EU’s political class is also aware that a functioning relationship with Turkey is not a choice but inevitable due to the expansive economic and societal linkages between Turkey and the EU, the geographical proximity, and the volatile security situation in the EU’s southern neighborhood.
Yet the EU still lacks a common strategic approach as revealed by the diverging attitudes between France and Germany vis-à-vis Turkey during the Eastern Mediterranean crisis last year. Coordinated European policy-making in the EU’s relations with Turkey is key to effectively address conflict and divergence without jeopardizing cooperation and dialogue. Such an approach requires leadership and candor from the EU to collaboratively shape its foreign policy.
Different Interests, Different Perspectives
During the Eastern Mediterranean crisis in 2020, France and Germany adopted different perspectives vis-à-vis Turkey. France advocated a confrontational approach – quite comparable to Turkey’s, not least the emphasis on sovereignty and the display of military might. Germany, on the other hand, prioritized diplomatic channels and mediation efforts between Turkey and Greece.
At the heart of these different perspectives are the two countries’ varying interests vis-à-vis Turkey. France sees in Turkey a growing strategic rival, particularly in Africa, whereby, for Germany, it, first and foremost, is of economic importance with its market potential and role in supply chains. In addition, Ankara is also a domestic policy issue for Germany due to the former’s concerted efforts to influence Europe’s largest Turkish diaspora that live in Germany.
At the same time, Paris and Berlin also differ—at least discursively—in terms of the EU’s place in the transatlantic alliance. France insists on a strategically more autonomous EU, as Macron declared NATO in 2019 “brain-dead” and urged Europe to “rethink its position with Russia”. Germany, on the other hand, urges more caution on the idea of European autonomy independent from NATO, despite its awareness of the need for a common European security and foreign policy agenda. In other areas, however, it does not hesitate to act independently from the US as manifest in NordStream2 as well as in Chancellor Merkel’s push at the end of 2020 for a trade deal between the EU and China despite opposition within the European Parliament and objections from Biden.
What makes Turkey a challenge?
The discussion of an autonomous foreign policy is also at the heart of the debates in Turkey about the country’s foreign policy. Ironically though, Ankara’s aspiration for an independent foreign policy comes at the expense of its increasing dependency on Russia (and China). This rightfully confirms the view within the EU that Turkey is an untrustworthy ally of the transatlantic security architecture, in a world marked by the so-called great power competition.
Yet Ankara also remains committed to its many obligations within NATO and is eager to prove its utility to the transatlantic community as its recent attempts in Afghanistan showcase. This apparent paradox requires qualifying the challenge that Turkey poses to the EU. In the case of the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, for instance, Turkish foreign policy revealed the weaknesses, and perhaps also the confusion, among Member States about what a common European foreign policy should entail in terms of priorities, interests, and threat perceptions. In turn, Ankara’s foreign policy also reflects its own multiple vulnerabilities.
Turkey is better defined as a disruptive force than a power that is diplomatically capable to shape. Its rapprochement efforts with the US, the EU, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia since Biden’s election manifest the hard limits in its confrontational foreign policy that is an amalgamation of at times incoherent tactical moves responding to conjunctural changes.
Yet Ankara’s incapacity to develop a coherent foreign policy strategy in line with the country’s economic realities is not an isolated incidence. Instead, it reflects the political cacophony undergirded by a weakening institutional capacity and worsening elite incoherence. Together with a current account deficit of 36.7 billion USD in 2020 and a short-term external debt stock of around 121.7 billion USD in June 2021, fragmentation of power within the state makes Ankara fragile. Such fragility weakens Turkey’s bargaining power in its competition with Member States such as France, Greece, and Cyprus, and thus might as well be perceived as an opportunity. Yet the larger security challenge posed by this fragility to the EU should not be overlooked. Possible spillover effects of an economic collapse or a turbulent political transition in Turkey are one such risk.
Three Pillars of an Effective Franco-German Approach to Turkey
This situation requires an audacious but balanced Franco-German approach to EU-Turkey relations. Three points need to be emphasized. The first is that neither bilateral tensions nor bilateral interests should determine policy-making at the EU level. It is imperative that France and Germany coordinate their policies better to maintain a careful balancing act between confronting Turkish unilateralism and strengthening areas of cooperation. This means that the EU should raise the costs of unilateralism in foreign policy for Ankara and insist that Turkey abide by international law.
Secondly, effective Franco-German cooperation should also consider arms production and sales. Developments in the Turkish defense industry play a key role in Ankara’s increasing deployment of hard power in the last couple of years. According to Turkish officials, almost 70 percent of the defense industry today is home grown. Whether, and if so, how to prevent middle income countries from increasing their military capabilities is a point worth reflecting upon. Yet such a reflection would only be honest if it were accompanied by a parallel discussion about regulating high income countries’ own arms exports. Germany and France clearly have much to discuss here as they are both among the top five arms exporters worldwide.
Last, but not least, effective Franco-German cooperation towards Turkey should avoid rendering transactionalism the status quo in the EU’s relations with Turkey and ensure that a rules-based framework is maintained. Given the de facto termination of the accession negotiations, the EU does not have much leverage left over Turkey’s democratization. Moreover, even during the times when it did have leverage, accession negotiations were often constrained by bilateral conflicts. Still, the upholding of multilateral principles concerning human rights and rule of law matters. The EU should hold Turkey accountable when it comes to Ankara’s commitments—be it to the ECHR or the Council of Europe Conventions such as the Istanbul Convention. Calling Turkey out and raising the costs of unilateralism in breach of human rights norms are also necessary to set clear redlines for countries, within and outside the EU, that have a similar propensity to violate multilateral principles.