Treading the Turkish tightrope

The European Union risks empowering Erdogan at its peril

Fraught with disagreement, relations between the EU and Turkey under Erdogan have rarely been easy. Bearing in mind recent developments, the Union needs to present a clear and united front in its dealings with Ankara. By Marc Pierini

During the past few months Turkey has launched several bold foreign policy initiatives, often with a strong military component. After much debate, the European Council, on 1 October, decided to take a soft line toward Ankara by offering it incentives and side-lining the idea of imposing sanctions. Does such an approach create strategic risks for the European Union and NATO?

The European Union is, by construction, a benevolent entity promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts with and among its neighbours. Among European leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly conciliatory with Turkey, as illustrated by the personal role she played in negotiating the refugee deal in 2015–2016 and the European Council’s conclusions on 1 October.

However, this last episode is troubling. European leaders came together to discuss relations with Turkey following months of unilateral moves by Ankara against EU interests in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the land border with Greece.

Yet, after prolonged talk of sanctions the European Council offered a respite to Turkey. Not a word on the dismal state of the rule of law – at a time when the situation in Belarus and the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny worry European leaders – and when suppression of Turkish civil society and political opponents continues unabated.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Johanna Geron)
Diametrically opposed to EU political culture: Turkey’s expansionist activities and disruptive foreign policy initiatives are at odds with the European Union’s and NATO’s interests. Allowing an autocratic Turkey to pursue adversarial steps on Europe’s south-eastern confines is not a strategy. It is a mere expedient that will come back to haunt EU leaders

Europe's failure to diagnose Turkey's trajectory

And there was only a hint about sanctions, even as European leaders adopted the "silver tray approach" seen during the 2015 refugee crisis, offering multiple benefits to Ankara, such as a renovation of the customs union with the EU, progress on visas, and the prospect of more money for Syrian refugees, apparently believing that they could assuage President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

True, Merkel is facing a distinct situation. The opinion of 3.5 million Germans of Turkish origin matters, trade and investment with Turkey are important, and Germany fears that a new wave of refugees could head to Germany if the EU adopts a harder line toward Ankara. However, what was missing on 1 October was a lucid diagnosis of Turkey’s trajectory and its consequences for Europe and NATO.

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