Turkey and the Euro-Atlantic community: Turbulence and ties of interest

2014 was another year characterized by turbulence in Turkish relations with Europe and the United States. In Turkey’s neighborhood, large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory fell under the control of the Islamic State group and Russia annexed Crimea. While the regional chaos and insecurity raised friction between Ankara and its Western allies, it also paved the way for some degree of policy convergence. 

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine are blatant violations of established norms and rules of the post-World War II European security order. For Turkey, however, these conflicts pale in comparison to the challenges and headaches created by the violence and instability in Syria and Iraq. The country hosts a refugee population fast approaching 2 million and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus is not about to fall anytime soon. Instead, the emergence of the so-called Islamic State has exacerbated the situation. Turkey is depicted in Western media as both a key player in efforts to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the group as well as a spoiler of these efforts. After the Turkish government showed reluctance to intervene in support of Kurdish resistance to an Islamic State onslaught on the Syrian border town of Kobane, some even called for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO. 

However, a degree of convergence between Turkey and the transatlantic alliance appears to be unfolding, slowly but surely. Defeating the Islamic State group, stabilizing Iraq, and finding a solution to the Syrian quagmire will all require Turkey’s active support. This is widely recognized. There is also growing recognition that Turkey’s policies are more consistent with those of its transatlantic partners on issues like foreign fighters and oil smuggling. Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s insistence that the primary focus of the transatlantic alliance should be the removal of Assad, more and more Turkish analysts and officials on the ground recognize this is an unrealistic approach, and pragmatism is needed. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey in November and his remark that “we need Turkey, and I think Turkey believes that it needs us as well” should be seen from the perspective of growing realism. Furthermore, the swelling refugee population in Turkey and the need to continue humanitarian assistance into Syria are bringing Turkey and the transatlantic community closer to each other, as the EU and United States are trying to put a refugee resettlement program in place in response to calls from Turkey for greater burden sharing. 

Another source of turbulence in Turkey’s relations with the transatlantic community is a deepening of Turkish-Russian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey within one week of Biden’s departure, and Ankara has kept its criticisms of Putin’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine to a minimum. Turkey’s muted response to a blatant violation of a neighbor’s territorial integrity is puzzling, particularly since “territorial integrity” has long been a sacrosanct principle of Turkish political culture. Furthermore, Crimea has a large minority of Tatars with close ethnic, historical, and religious ties to Turkey and a clear preference to remain part of Ukraine. Russia and Turkey also have conspicuous diametrically opposed policies toward Syria: Putin has been unrelenting in his support for al-Assad, while Erdoğan has been a virulent opponent. But Turkish officials have yet to complain about Russia’s stance on Syria, in stark contrast to Erdoğan’s consistent, bitter criticism of the West over its inaction.

It is clear Putin has been playing on Turkey’s dependence on imported energy. The Russian president’s decision to scrap the South Stream project and instead promise an alternative transit pipeline through Turkey, if realized, is likely to further enhance this dependence. Turkey runs a more than three-fold trade deficit with Russia, which it can only partly balance with income from Russian tourism and from Turkish companies doing business in Russia. Maintaining good relations with Russia has become an economic sine quo non. Putin’s leadership style and anti-Western rhetoric may also endear him to Erdoğan and to some extent the Turkish public. 

Yet the stark reality is that Turkey is far more deeply integrated economically with the EU than with Russia. In 2014, the EU accounted for 39 percent of Turkey’s foreign trade, compared to 8 percent for Russia. Exports to the EU rose by 9 percent compared to 2013, while exports to Russia fell by 15 percent. The mounting economic crisis in Russia is likely to further undermine Turkish exports and possibly Russian tourism to Turkey. 

Turkey’s recent democratic backsliding is another good argument for why Turkey needs the EU. Erdoğan’s decision to clamp down on media closely associated with the Gülen Movement at the end of 2014 provoked widespread criticism of disregard for basic democratic freedoms and rule of law in Turkey. Erdoğan’s rebuke that he did not care what the EU thought brought EU-Turkish relations to a new low. Many in Turkey long for the days when the AK Party government adopted reform packages one after the other, grew the economy, and presented Turkey as a model for democratic transition in the region. Today, democratic regression and a weakening of rule of law are frequently cited as adversely affecting the performance of the Turkish economy. Continued engagement with the EU is critical to building confidence. Turkey also needs the EU’s business because the instability in its neighborhood to the south and east has resulted in a loss of markets and fall in capital inflows. The case can also be made that the EU needs Turkey economically, especially at a time when the EU is still struggling to come out of recession and sanctions on Russia are hurting exports. 

Under these circumstances, it seems both sides have an interest in overcoming the turbulence in the relationship and remaining engaged with one another. While Turkish membership in the EU is not likely to happen anytime soon, maintaining a credible process is crucial. It is paramount the EU open a number of new chapters for negotiations. It is also crucial that the EU and Turkey adopt the World Bank’s April 2014 recommendation of upgrading their customs union. Both sides have expressed interest in doing so, and economic realities suggest that everyone would benefit. 

Additionally, the United States should explore the idea of enlarging the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to include Turkey or sign a bilateral free trade agreement with Turkey. In the long run, this would help re-anchor Turkey to the transatlantic community, enlarge the business community with a stake in liberal market values, make Turkey a net contributor to the transatlantic economy, help with employment creation, and increase strategic cooperation. 

Stronger and deeper relations with the West would help revive Turkey’s democracy and economy and restore its soft power in the region. Early signs of such engagement could also help minimize the damage resulting from the continued populist and anti-Western discourse emanating from Turkey’s political leadership. However, it is likely that Erdoğan’s resentful discourse towards the West will continue at least until the parliamentary elections in June this year. In turn, the outcome of the election will not only determine whether Turkey will be able to recover from the democratic setbacks of recent years but also whether the turbulence in its relations with the transatlantic community can be overcome.

This piece was originally published by the Transatlantic Academy