The author is a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Nisantasi University


The door was finally opened for establishing a conditional-but-positive dialogue between the European Union (EU) and Turkey with the decisions taken at the EU Leaders’ Summit held on March 25-26, 2021. As we remember, Brussels stated that it would make efforts to maintain a more constructive relationship with Ankara from now on, but also that these efforts would be “gradual, proportional and reversible” at the end of the summit in March. For this reason, the bureaucratic language used by the EU also brought about a cautious outlook for the future of EU-Turkey relations.

After all, we’re talking about a structure that’s extremely slow and cumbersome in responding to crises. In fact, during the last visit of EU Council President Charles Michael and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Ankara on April 4, it was found that the desired pace of progress couldn’t be achieved in some of the demands from the Ankara administration sent to Brussels.

The most concrete example for this is the opening of the 23rd and 24th chapters, which Turkey had been expecting regarding its EU membership vision and has been long-demanded by the Ankara administration, still not being realized. Brussels avoiding to leave the path of the status quo regarding Turkey, as well as its slowness, has led some analysts following the topic to think negatively about the future of EU-Turkey relations. Actually, there are some in both the EU and Turkey that expect the relations to be dislodged from the unexciting and immobile line it’s been following.

However, those who’re expecting this development are also able to see clearly one actual situation: the nature of EU-Turkey relations has always had its ups and downs in the last 45 years, with the changing conjuncture as well. If Turkey’s quest for autonomy in its foreign and security policy is the reason for these fluctuations, it’s known that another reason is completely EU-driven and that it’s the EU generally shelving geopolitical thinking and the strategic mind during geopolitical transformations that concern the region as well. So, the divide within the EU bureaucracy, as we’ve seen in the recent artificial “Sofa” crisis as well, is pushing Brussels to make wrong decisions.

But, we can find a consolation point here as well: this time around, the EU seems to be insistent on giving Turkey a positive message, as in “better lose the saddle than the horse.”

  • Turkey, effective and game-changing in its area, is pressuring the EU

When we compare the EU-Turkey relations of the 1960s with the EU-Turkey relations of today, we see significant differences. The 1960s and 70s were times in which Europe achieved something challenging. Europe was building a separate identity for itself in the seriousness of the Cold War. Hence, it was attractive to all actors looking to diversify their relations. Such a mood of success was very briefly achieved in the early 2000s, and the EU became the institutional playground for populist statements and increasingly childish competition in accordance with the pause in EU-Turkey relations afterward.

We are in times when Ankara is gaining power and influence as a regional actor against the EU’s recent losses in power and influence. For this reason, Brussels is aware that it has to normalize its relations with Turkey somehow. This is why a concept called “positive agenda” was introduced. However, the divided nature of the Union stands as the primary obstacle in front of the positive EU-Turkey relations that are trying to be built in today’s circumstances. We see, at least from the conclusions of the Leaders’ Summit, that 27 EU member states have difficulties in making joint decisions on important security and foreign policy issues. Decisions that don’t fully satisfy anybody and, more importantly, restrict Brussels’ mobility are taken in the summits held recently.

This ineffectiveness is not limited to Brussels-Ankara relations either. For instance, in 2020, the EU celebrated the 25th anniversary of the famous Barcelona process. However, the question of “what is even there to celebrate” was also on the minds of EU diplomats. This is because the Union either barely has a voice, if any, in its immediate vicinity, such as in South Africa and the Middle East, on many controversial issues (such as the Palestine issue, the Middle East peace process, the issue of sharing the energy in the Mediterranean), or it renders ineffective the contributions it could make to a solution by becoming part of the problem in the first place.

The Union’s ineffectiveness in neighboring areas has brought about a power vacuum as well. We’ve also seen that this vacuum appearing in the Mediterranean has naturally led to a significant power struggle. On the other hand, some EU member states wanted to partner up with some Middle Eastern countries (a long list including Israel and the UAE) to make sure profits, acting independently of the Union. These opportunistic policies sometimes brought about positions that contradicted the decisions of the Union and even led to EU member states taking competing positions with each other.

  • The ‘new normal’ of the Union: Smiling at Turkey

Aware of the damage that this situation will do to the credibility of the Union, Germany took action to put an end to this trend and, at the least, to highlight the EU’s ability to establish multilateral diplomacy. It’s actually essential that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strategy for setting the Union back in order with EU-Turkey relations. Germany is aiming to reduce the escalations in the Mediterranean basin and make the problems and tensions in the region manageable again through its strategy of replacing the punishing language that prioritizes sanctions in its relations with the Ankara administration with an attitude of positive dialogue and winning Turkey back.

Thus, Merkel’s Turkey policy, whether satisfactory or not, is also the starting point of the strategy of raising the EU from the dead as a geopolitical actor. At this point, we must also say that Merkel’s Germany intends to open some doors for the Ankara administration. This is why the diplomatic initiatives are taken by Turkey as a game-changing actor, generally in the Mediterranean region and specifically in Libya and Syria, such as establishing the exploratory talks with Greece and proposing the Eastern Mediterranean conference, are so important.

The Ankara administration was able to [thus] amplify the efforts made by Germany and other EU member states supporting Turkey to turn over a new leaf with Turkey. In this context, we see that even countries in the Union that initially had objections to strengthening their relations with Turkey and wanted sanctions to be imposed on the Ankara administration at the summit in March have come to understand, albeit reluctantly, the criticality of the Ankara factor.

In fact, there is a good [Western] expression for the current situation: Not ignoring Ankara any longer is the new normal of the Mediterranean for them. Indeed, the two highest-level representatives of the EU, EU Council President Charles Michael and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, officially visiting Ankara on April 4, following the December and March summits, to make a brand new start with Turkey supports our claim. EU Chairman top two representatives of the EU Council Indeed, Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen December and in the name of making a new start with Turkey following the summit March 4 for having paid an official visit to Ankara in April also supports our arguments.

The Union’s new dual-track approach is behind the conditional dialogue that the EU envisages for Turkey. In its new road map for Ankara, Brussels acts with the belief that it’s in its favor to reduce the tensions in the region as soon as possible by the incentives offered to Ankara in line with its interests in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. On the other hand, Brussels wants to deter the Union from acting without thinking in case of any future tension by signaling that it could impose specific punitive measures on Ankara. It seems that the long-term bottleneck in the EU-Turkey membership loop has pushed Brussels to find such a solution. In short, it doesn’t let go of the “stick” but also puts a big smile on his face, not forgetting the new normal.

Turkey has so far overcome all obstacles and pitfalls against itself and returned strongly to the negotiation table. This is why it’s hard for Turkey to be convinced of this smile with the stick in hand. In fact, it’s also not easy for Brussels to maintain this ambivalent policy. Sometimes old habits or internal conflicts surface and they forget to smile. Here’s the essence of the issue: The EU, once more, makes a mistake in trying to protect the possibilities of cooperation in bilateral relations with the threat of punishment. We expect a more creative solution from Brussels than middle-ground strategies. In fact, we’re at a time when Brussels is in dire need of being creative.

  • When the EU fails to overcome critical security issues

We know that the EU has had a lot of difficulty in its fight against many soft and complex security threats over the last few years. In 2016, Brussels announced its global strategy and hence its plan to act autonomously but couldn’t achieve the independence it wished to have in the military and security fields. The lack of trust in transatlantic relations instituted during Trump’s term has led to the EU’s concerns on this issue downright magnifying. The economic issues within the Union are the leading factor that’s reinforcing and accelerating the negative security perception in the EU with the Trump administration. The Brexit process with the UK has also kept the EU’s decision-making mechanisms quite busy. Finally, all the negativities experienced by the member states during the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which affected the whole world and caused significant losses in Europe, seriously battered Brussels’ capacity to create standard foreign and security policies; the results of which came to light in a short time. EU members started gravitating towards independent foreign policies, and certain members resisting the joint decisions of Brussels, even in matters like the immigration issue, strained the foreign policy-making process of the Union and eventually caused Brussels to fall into conflict with its own values.

  • What can we expect in the future?

Therefore, it’s not actually surprising that the EU, which has difficulties in formulating foreign and security policies (doesn’t see the energy in itself to find creative solutions) today, didn’t fully meet the demands of the Ankara administration. In fact, clearly, it’s a significant success of Turkish diplomacy that Brussels and Ankara have already established a new dialogue route prior to the EU Summit to be held in June and that Brussels has shelved the sanctions threat. However, Ankara would not be satisfied with this, naturally. In the following period, Turkey will continue insisting on opening the chapters in the EU accession process at every opportunity while also searching for ways to create new areas for cooperation, playing the “win-win” game with the Union. Thus, Ankara will make the maximum effort to bring its bilateral relations with the EU to the level of membership over time. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already made this political position clear, saying: “Turkey’s place is in Europe.” The Ankara administration has almost completed its homework on the Customs Union with both the visa exemptions and the March 18 Statement and conveyed these issues to the EU representatives, face-to-face, during their visit to Ankara on April 4.

In essence, EU-Turkey relations are now already set in motion to advance on a new line and all accounts of geopolitical transformations verify this. The first provision of the new Ankara-Brussels roadmap will be made at the EU Summit, soon to be held in June. Who knows, the new geopolitical transformations taking place up to that point may bring Brussels even closer to finding more creative ideas regarding Turkey and mentioning, fearlessly, the membership outlook moving forward.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

*Translated by Can Atalay from Turkish

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