Last EU summit, Turkey and sanctions: It could be worse

At the recent EU summit, a clear decision regarding sanctions against Turkey has once again been postponed until the next summit in late March 2021, and chose to outsource the decision to the incoming Biden administration, which will face this issue on day one. The likelihood that harsher sanctions would lead to a change in the behavior of the Turkish government is, however, close to zero.

The highly anticipated German-led EU summit concluded on Dec. 11. Even though there was much speculation about the possibility of harsher sanctions against Turkey, the final outcome was, once again, rather soft, and any further decision was postponed until the next EU summit scheduled for March 2021. This was done in part to allow the decision to be outsourced to the incoming Biden administration. The EU for the time being will move forward with soft sanctions against individuals and companies connected to gas exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and will prepare a report on the current state of relations. No violent train crash, per usual.

This also means that the German turn at the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, which started on July 1 and will end in two weeks, didn’t see any breakthroughs, but succeeded in avoiding further troubles and escalation with Turkey. Perhaps this is a success given the high tensions which have plagued much of the past six months. From the beginning, Germany was not really planning to do much about Turkey anyway. The program of the German presidency, entitled “Together for Europe’s recovery,“ doesn’t even mention Turkey in its 28 pages and over 12,000 words.

When Chancellor Merkel presented the German program to the European Parliament in Brussels on July 8, she did mention Turkey once, but only when talking about “Europe's responsibility in a globalized world” and only as a country located on “Europe’s external borders.”

From there, the problems started. From mid-August onwards, tensions rose because of Turkey's seismic exploration of waters also claimed by either Greece or Cyprus. This Mediterranean confrontation is about oil and gas, but it is much more about influence and power in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey sees itself in opposition to a hostile alliance of countries trying to exclude it.

Even if this conflict involves EU member states and Turkey, a candidate country, most EU members do not want relations to further deteriorate. In this situation, as Ülgen and Aydintasbas have argued, “Chancellor Angela Merkel is playing the role that U.S. presidents traditionally play, periodically calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis separately.”

German Foreign Minister Maas in August tried his luck in shuttle diplomacy. This was positively acknowledged by the Turkish side. On Sept. 17, İbrahim Kalın, spokesperson and senior advisor to President Erdogan, said during an online discussion with the European Council on Foreign Relations that he “believes the German mediation has been very helpful, they have been fair." Kalin doubled down on this position at an online event with the German Marshall Fund on Dec. 9 saying, “Germans have played a remarkably positive role.” Additionally, a group of leading Turkish academics underlined that Germany “adopted a conciliatory position and acted as a facilitator and mediator to start dialogue and reconciliation between the parties.

Germany is joined in the “no further sanctions” camp by Italy, Spain, and Malta, all of whom have either strong economic incentives to keep relations intact or fear refugees. For president Erdoğan, these are the “reasonable countries in the EU,” who wish to avoid harsher sanctions, as he said in Istanbul on Dec. 11.

Unsurprisingly, not all find this position reasonable. However, the likelihood that harsher sanctions would lead to a change in the Turkish government's behavior is close to zero. It would satisfy some hard liners in the EU, but would further worsen relations and complicate the re-building of trust, more dialogue, and contacts, all which have largely been lost in the past few years. Therefore, as the German Social Democratic Party's foreign policy spokesperson Nils Schmid wrote to the author in late November, Germany should continue to try to mediate: “Germany can and should be a broker in this process. If we differentiate between impartiality and neutrality in negotiation, I can see a continued role for Germany as the mediating actor within the EU framework.” This could be the case at least until the new Biden administration takes office and until the next EU summit.

If by that point there is still no progress on any of the problematic issues and there are no signs of convergence, then the debate should not be about sanctions and punishments, but about how to find a new framework for relations beyond the accession process, which, most analysts agree, doesn’t serve its purpose of aligning Turkey with the EU and encouraging democratic reforms. The EU and Turkey should use the winter months, in light or harsh corona-lockdowns, to come up with alternatives and concrete ideas of how to improve the relations. Otherwise, the regular tensions, accompanied with short-term damage control, will continue. Such a relationship is not worthwhile, and does not correspond to its importance for both sides. It is less important what the framework of the relationship is called, it mostly matters that it works.

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