There is little doubt that relations between the European Union and Turkey have deteriorated over the past year, with tensions rising on a number of mutually important issues, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and the general framework of cooperation between the two.
However, the reality of the matter is more complex than the simplistic narratives that dominate the general discourse, and a more leveled approach shows that the current tensions are more rooted in misunderstandings than in an inherent ambition to engage in an increasingly high-stakes wrestling match.
The reality is that Turkey’s long-term strategy was originally built on dialogue and closer political and economic integration with Europe. When the incumbent ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) won the elections in 2002, it set its sights on EU accession, embarking on an expansive economic development program within a framework of greater alignment with EU protocol.
However, at a time when Turkey believed it was inching closer to accession, negotiations became more protracted. This caused frustration in Ankara, which soon grew dismayed that the EU had begun to drag its feet on the accession process. While the EU may well have had sincere and genuine concerns over the extent of Turkey’s development, the view from Ankara was that the real reason lay in more ideological considerations, which were seemingly confirmed when then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 declared that "Turkey is not part of Europe. It belongs to Asia Minor."
In other words, Sarkozy seemed to confirm the long-held fears of Turkish policymakers that while the EU ostensibly offered accession, it would never seriously consider allowing a Muslim-majority country to join, especially so long as France continued to hold significant sway over its administration. Whether this was the opinion of the EU or just France was irrelevant, as Brussels insisted Turkey continue to pursue accession without allaying these underlying concerns or demonstrating consideration for the sensitivities or misgivings that Turkish policymakers might have had as a result of the statements coming out of Paris.
Disillusioned and alienated, Turkey began to consider other alternatives for economic and political integration.
Turkey thus turned to the Middle East. As the economy improved in the late 2000s, Gulf investment began to flow in, yet Arab states nonetheless came to view Turkey with suspicion. From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Turkey returning to the Muslim world under the leadership of a democratically successful party with Islamic leanings could potentially challenge its leadership of the Muslim World – won following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the fledgling Republic of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s subsequent decision to withdraw the country and insulate it from the ensuing regional chaos. While Saudi (and wider Gulf) investment flowed, relations remained cordial without any indication that a wider framework of cooperation might be established.
Having received a cold reception from Europe and the Middle East, Turkey turned to its immediate neighbors, cementing political and economic ties with Syria, Iran and Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), while focusing on its own internal issues.
The Arab Spring, however, threw the entire region into flux, and it was in the ensuing chaos that it became clear the extent to which Turkey’s foreign policy has been reactionary, scrambling to adapt to rapidly unfolding events that Ankara never had any intention of becoming embroiled in.
The Syrian conflict created a mass refugee influx and an emboldened PKK terrorist group with long-term ambitions of establishing any de facto autonomous region that might emerge from the Syrian chaos. Ironically, the Syrian civil war came at the exact time President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was pursuing a landmark peace process with the PKK and its Syrian offshoots, seeking to end the conflict and capitalize on the goodwill accumulated over the years as the Kurdish population continued to vote overwhelmingly for the AK Party.
Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK's imprisoned leader, personally sanctioned the negotiations in the initial stages. However, as Syria descended into chaos, the PKK began to stall on the peace process as the war offered a new prospect for the group to launch a renewed bid for an independent, or at least autonomous, state.
Turkish policymakers lamented the extraordinary circumstances that had scuppered the prospect of a historic peace agreement with the PKK and began to fret over Washington’s facilitating of logistics and weapons to the terrorist groups that enabled them to rapidly expand and entrench themselves on the border with Turkey.
Washington argued, and with some reason, that the terrorist groups were the only viable leverage they could use against a Bashar Assad regime backed by Russia and roaming militias backed by Iran. U.S. policymakers argued that an Iraqi model whereby the Kurds were denied independence but granted enough autonomy to be able to pressure Iran’s allies would be the most suitable outcome given the circumstances.
However, Washington failed to display sympathy for Turkey’s legitimate concerns that the empowerment of the PKK-linked terrorist groups would inevitably come at the expense of Turkey’s own security as an autonomous entity would provide a haven for the groups operating on Turkish soil. Washington had no answer to this concern except to insist that U.S. foreign policy on the matter was non-negotiable and to resort to political and economic pressure to force Ankara to concede.
Turkey turned to Europe, calling for support to establish a safe zone and provide financial support to temper the economic impact of housing more than 3 million refugees. However, Turkey found a reluctant EU embroiled in its own internal strife as it sought to combat the rise of the far-right who had capitalized on discontent toward the issue of refugees and wider migration.
The U.K. voted to withdraw from the EU, with immigration dominating the dynamics surrounding the vote, while Italy’s former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini swept into power on an anti-migration mandate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was similarly punished in local elections. In other words, the view from Ankara was that the reluctant support for Europe was rooted in political expediency. European leaders did not want to pay a political price and therefore sought to ensure refugees stayed in Turkey.
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces were beginning to close in on Idlib with Russian support. Faced with the prospect of a new influx of refugees, and the increased expansion of armed separatists, and in the midst of relative apathy from Europe and the U.S., Turkey lashed out in defense of its interests and launched military operations to curb the expansion of terrorist groups and rescue Idlib so as to establish a de facto safe zone that might contain the flow of refugees and act as leverage against an assertive Moscow.
In other words, Turkey was not keen to involve itself militarily in Syria. Yet, among Turkish policymakers, the debate is not as to "if" Turkey should have intervened, as is the case in many European capitals, but over why it took so long to intervene as the threat became ever more imminent. The debate is over why Ankara relied so heavily on the prospect of dialogue at the expense of its own interests.
As Turkey asserted itself militarily, Washington’s reaction was to withdraw U.S. troops, dispatch CIA Chief Gina Haspel, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and even U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara in October 2019, to engage in serious dialogue over U.S. support for the armed PKK-affiliated terrorists and Turkey’s wider concerns over Russia and the Syria conflict. Turkish policymakers naturally began to believe that they were now being taken seriously only because they had used force.
On the refugee issue, Turkey decided to open the border, allowing refugees to cross into Europe. Greece responded violently, but Germany immediately dispatched diplomats and began to engage with Turkey in a manner that made Ankara feel it was being heard. Once again, Turkish policymakers had found further evidence that without force, they would continue to be ignored.
As in the case regarding Syria and its refugees, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is the result of years of grievances that Ankara feels have been roundly ignored by Europe. As new gas finds have been made in the East Mediterranean, negotiations have taken place between Israel, Egypt, Greece, Italy and the Greek Cypriot administration. In other words, negotiations have taken place that exclude Turkey.
Moreover, as the tensions and sensitivities have inevitably arisen as a result of the misunderstandings over Turkey’s foreign policy, there has been a general sense that the exclusion of Turkey from these negotiations is intended and part of a wider policy by these nations to isolate what they perceive to be an "expansionist" and "aggressive" country.
Turkey’s assertion has been that it should be given access to resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and be part of a framework of cooperation with the other nations. However, it has steadily watched what it perceives to be a blockade whereby Libya is considered the "final piece." Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Turkey antagonist the United Arab Emirates (UAE), would naturally have aligned with the other Mediterranean nations who have demonstrated a tendency to ignore or be generally averse to Turkey.
This is why Ankara felt it was absolutely essential that Haftar should not be allowed to seize Tripoli militarily and that there should be a Libyan government agreed upon by the Libyans. Its intervention and use of force propelled Turkey to a position whereby it is now being engaged by Berlin and Washington over prospective political processes, and now being engaged by Greece and NATO in a dialogue that Ankara has welcomed and demonstrated its commitment to by withdrawing the exploration ships that Athens felt were the cause of antagonism.
While there are assertions that Turkey’s involvement in Syria and Libya is primarily for self-interest, this does not by default suggest that this adversely affects the promotion of stability in the region. Turkey may well have preferred to support and side with the Islam-rooted nations in the region, and may well have believed with good reason that they would become the prime beneficiaries politically and economically from the success of conservative groups.
However, Turkey supported these parties within the democratic framework in which they came to power. At no point has Turkey sought to superimpose its will outside the democratic framework.
By contrast, other regional powers have directly superimposed their will by facilitating military coups and arming ultra vires entities in a bid to restore authoritarianism. In other words, whereas some regional powers benefit from authoritarianism, Turkey is quite possibly the prime regional beneficiary politically and economically from the promotion of democratic trends in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, and therefore has a vested interest in seeing a democratically elected government in Libya.
While these examples are not exhaustive, they serve to demonstrate that while Turkey’s foreign policy is currently touted as "expansionist" and "aggressive," it is in reality "reactionary" and a response to an ever-growing sense of alienation brought about by a perceived lack of serious engagement by the EU over Turkish sensitivities and concerns.
While Turkey’s foreign policy is touted as "neo-Ottoman," it is – in reality – a natural phenomenon brought about by the urgent needs of a nation to insulate itself from the extraordinary events of a region that is quite simply ablaze. While Turkey’s foreign policy is touted as "irresponsible," the reality is that it has rescued the political process in Libya and Syria from military solutions that would have completely eliminated any discussion over the diplomatic initiatives being presented today.
It is these very realities that suggest that conditions remain conducive for constructive and engaged dialogue between Turkey and the EU. Turkey’s rapid escalation that is followed by sudden de-escalation is a sign that Ankara still prefers dialogue over force. If offered the platform to engage, Turkey has demonstrated a tendency to accept.
The real question lies in what framework the EU envisages cooperation with Turkey. Is it still via an accession process or through increased bilateral ties? How does the EU navigate French sensitivities over Turkey’s economic push into Francophone West Africa? More importantly, to what extent can the EU operate as an effective partner in foreign policy given Rome, Paris, Berlin and Athens all have different priorities and goals when it comes to the volatile regional issues?
However the EU chooses to answer these pertinent questions, the regional dynamics as they stand suggest that it is in the EU and Turkey’s interests to find common ground as they wrestle with Russia and navigate a U.S. foreign policy that has undermined the traditional international institutions and global order.
*Editor-in-chief of the International Interest