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What Should Europe’s Diplomacy Towards Turkey Be? Answers from Ariane Bonzon

What Should Europe’s Diplomacy Towards Turkey Be? Answers from Ariane Bonzon
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

The relationship between the European Union and Turkey has done nothing but deteriorate since the Turkish President’s authoritarian shift in July 2016, after an attempted coup, followed by Turkey’s offensive on the Syrian town of Afrin at the beginning of the year. After yet another summit aiming to renew the dialogue ended up in a stalemate at the end of March, what can the EU do regarding this increasingly distant neighbor? What is the rationale behind Turkish politics? The journalist Ariane Bonzon, who collaborated with former Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, on this matter, answers our questions.

After the mitigated result of the Varna summit at the end of March, can we still  hope for the renewal of the Turkish-European dialogue? Why does Turkey stand firm  on its position of “full membership or nothing”?

Between Turkey and the European Union, the loser will be the first one to end the dialogue. Recep Tayyip Erdogan understood this perfectly well. He happily portrays Turkey as a victim of a worthless and hypocritical Europe in front of his public opinion. While he displays himself as a strong politician, he capitalizes on this narrative, especially in times of elections. This strategy is all the more profitable at a time when anti-Western, and in particular anti-US sentiment is very strong in Turkey and spans across all political parties. A large majority of the political spectrum (nationalists from both the right and the left) shares this anti-US feeling, and even more so since the 2003 intervention in Iraq. However, the anti-European feeling is much less widespread (for instance, the ECHR institution is appreciated, and not just by Turkish elites). Yet, since he got closer to Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sometimes seems like he is trying to reinforce this feeling of anti-Europeanism.

The European Union would also be loosing if it was to put an end to the dialogue. Yet it precisely wants to avoid disruption. The European Parliament voted in favor of the suspension of negotiations but was not followed by the Commission for instance. Moreover, Brussels has not interrupted the release of funds supporting the “acquis communautaire” (or Community Acquis) (i.e. more than €10 billion during the 2007-2020 period), affected to Turkey in the context of negotiations regarding the country’s membership. Although political negotiations for Turkey’s membership are currently stalled, there is a strong will to keep the dialogue and trade deals open. Besides, the EU is not willing to leave behind Human Rights activists in Turkey. In short, were the dialogue to cease, the Union would have no more means left to influence its Turkish neighbor. France is strategically binded to Turkey by important security agreements and on defence matters. The whole difficulty for the country will therefore lie in articulating the “bilateral partnership” that President Macron - who now remains silent on integration - seems to want to develop, with the EU’s slightly schizophrenic stance towards Turkey (we finance the integration process despite being aware that it is not on the agenda anymore).  

What conclusion should we draw from the European diplomatic action regarding Turkey’s authoritarian drift? Should the EU adopt a policy of economic sanctions, at the risk of drawing closer to Russia, or on the contrary keep the Union’s door ajar?

To understand Turkey, one must remember the context in which it stands: it is not a member of the European Union. Yet, at a time when the Europeans are already struggling with Hungary or Poland, how could they possibly impose sanctions on a non-EU state? 

Sure, there have already been sanctions against Russia in retaliation for Crimea’s annexation, but, unlike Kiev, Damascus has not complained to the West about the Afrin offensive led by the Turkish army and the fact that militias gathered within what is left of the Free Syrian Army regained control over the city. On the contrary, it seems that this operation has been led with Moscow’s green light, a an ally of the Syrian regime.

Therefore, despite the demand of the autonomist Kurds from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to impose sanctions against Turkey on Syria, the implementation of such sanctions is tricky and requires factoring in new developments on the Syrian front.

It would in fact be interesting to see whether Turkey, once sanctioned, would plead for discrimination against a State with a Muslim majority, backing its argument with the case of Israel, which is not punished the policy it leads towards Palestinian territories. Indeed, Recep Tayyip Erdogan never publicly called for sanctions against Israel, yet he does not hesitate to use the Palestinian cause to polish his image. 

In short, if we can understand the appeal of economic sanctions from a moral point of view, their efficiency and legitimacy both remain unsure. However, (temporarily) preventing behinds the scenes Turkish leaders to access some economic and diplomatic platforms, little known by the public, could have an impact. Meanwhile, we could work on the development of the customs Union implemented between Turkey and the EU since 1996. 

The European Union is opposed to Turkey’s offensive in Syria against Kurdish forces, yet it does not want to be excluded from the political transition led by the Astana process, in which Turkey is involved. How could these two conflicting objectives be met?

Emmanuel Macron has been very clear on his reservations regarding the Astana process, in which protagonists, Russia, Iran, Turkey would have engaged according to their own agenda, rather than for Syria’s future. The European Union, as for France, seems to prioritize the Geneva talks, even though the latter has not yet given any tangible results. Yet it is essential to speak of the Kurdish issue, which is key. The ideal would probably be that different parties guarantee to the PYD Kurds an autonomous zone in the North of Syria, probably separated from Turkey by a buffer zone, and the engagement of the PYD and of its cousin, the PKK (at war with Ankara since 1984) to respect an honorable peace agreement for all parties involved (a “Peace of the Brave”) with Turkey. Yet for electoral security, and ideological reasons, it is hard to imagine President Erdogan accepting such  a deal in the coming months.

Kurdish militias have courageously helped the international coalition chaired by the United States in their fight against ISIS. Yet let us not be fooled by their strategy: these groups fought to sustain their own interests and their main goal was to apply their “democratic confederalism” project to the largest possible autonomous zone. They have not battled against ISIS to please the EU, but because it was a matter of political survival for them. Given that they have no “European agenda”, they could eventually turn to the highest bidder. As for now, the European Union remains stuck on this issue. President Macron proposed to endorse the role of a mediator, yet without any success so far.

Is there a risk that we might definitively “lose” Turkey, as we have “lost” Russia? Is there still a way to prevent such an outcome?

The problem is not exactly the same: Russians wanted to preserve their “backyard” and chose to confront the West. As for Turkey, things are quite different. First, there was the disastrous episode of its application to be part of the EU, which no one has forgotten, and then there were the tensions regarding the fight against the PKK, which is an absolute priority for Turkey, and which opposes the country to  its NATO allies.

More importantly, all, or most of Erdogan’s policies, including his offensive on Afrin, are determined by the presidential and parliamentary snap elections he recently called to be held in June, at the same time when the new Constitution (a presidentialist regime, similar to that in some Latin American countries in the 1970s) will come into effect. According to this new Constitution, if President Erdogan does not manage to secure a majority in Parliament, he would lose his power.. The stakes are high. However, the military incursion on the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria and Erdogan’s alliance with the far-right nationalist and anti-Kurdish Turkish party (MHP), will probably make him lose Kurdish voters (islamists, tribal chiefs, etc.) who used to support him. 

Besides, the European Union is now under Turkey’s thumb regarding immigration and its hands are tied since the March 2016 agreement. It has proved unable to adopt a specific stance on important issues such as integration, right of asylum or a common status for refugees. The EU would be well advised to progress on a common line to speak with Turkey. Yet some Eastern European countries refuse to abide in solidarity, and thus strengthen the Turkish president’s populist discourse, for whom it is easy to criticize the EU’s carelessness. Erdogan is not afraid of lying, and notably accuses the EU of breaking its word regarding the release of funds  for refugees and the release of visas for Turkish citizens, supposedly settled by the 2016 agreement. However, these compensation measures depended on specific requirements which Turkey has not, so far, met. 

Therefore, Erdogan’s declarations on the European Union and France must  be understood in the light of his electoral concern, to not say his obsession, which dictates its populism and equally all of his speeches and actions. He therefore reaffirms the fear of Turkey’s dismantlement by Western powers, which dates back to the trauma of the Sèvres Treaty after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is building a new national narrative in the historical continuity of the Kemalist nationalism, by adding a good deal of Islam and populism to it. There is indeed a tint of Orban and Putin in Erdogan. 

I am in fact astonished by the lack of historical culture of some of our European leaders. We mentioned the Varna Summit, in Bulgaria, where the EU would have hoped to obtain a favor from Erdogan. However, the Ottoman Empire won the famous battle against the Hungarian King in 1444 in Varna. How could the Turkish President, who constantly registers his action in the “neo-Ottoman” heritage, concede anything to Europeans in Varna, when five centuries ago his “predecessor” had crushed them there? 

This brings me to the following question: confronted to this islamist-nationalist narrative, which has its own logic and coherence, what narrative is the EU producing? I cannot think of any that could compete. The Council of Europe’s deliberations cannot be used as a democratic narrative. By offering a counter discourse, neither arrogant nor aggressive, and by taking into account Turkey’s specificity, the EU could also occupy space.  Yet the EU is failing to improve these relations, which will keep deteriorating as long as Erdogan sees an electoral advantage in this trend. 

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