The EU and the U.S. seem to have exchanged their roles towards Turkey. Traditionally, if any tradition still remains in Turkey’s foreign affairs in 2021 that is, the EU was the driving force in monitoring and transforming -or if one is of optimistic leaning kind- perfecting the Turkish democracy. Now, our world stands at the dawn of a new Cold War of sorts between the proposed global models of the U.S. and China that appears to be poised to last for decades.
Hence, freedom and democracy agenda becomes an intrinsic extension of the U.S. national interests and by default of its foreign policy. The EU, in one way committed a diplomatic suicide or in other words wiped its hands clean of Turkey, by effectively shelving its sealed and signed deal of Turkey’s accession as a full member to the club. Again to put in different words, it is also Ankara that missed time and again the opportunity to show adaptability to pursue its full EU membership goal by committing so-called “unforced errors” along the way.
Jumping over the question of “whose fault is it?” and judging by the current state of play, the EU has no leverage left whatsoever over Turkey. It has an almost compulsory cooperation with the hapless candidate on curbing the illegal migration from MENA countries and especially from Syria. The relation’s nature is deteriorated, seemingly in an irreversible way, from a value-based strategic partnership to a transactional one. All the more so that this new “firm” transactionalism entails an Iran-like treatment of Turkey complete with engagement and sanctions alternating on Ankara’s behaviour.
To put it more bluntly, Turkey’s “regime” is no longer of any interest for the EU as long as it does not create any nuisance on various fronts such as Libya, Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, Greece and even to a certain extent, Syria. For Erdoğan, this is a give and take that means putting into the reverse gear externally yet hiding the internal matters away from the unwelcome inquisitory looks to hold them to western standards. For the EU, this alleged give & take offered an opportunity to wriggle itself out, once again as it did following the previous Council meeting at the end of December, and punt towards the US awaiting the EU-U.S. in summer.
Nevertheless, the bilateral Turkey-U.S. relations are stalled too. The ever elusive phone call from Biden to Erdoğan did not materialize. Just looking at the headlines, one may be led to judge that the Turkish Foreign Minister meets with his American counterpart in Brussels to rush to receive his Chinese opposite number in Ankara the next day. The reality is different though. Blinken made it abundantly clear that unless the Russian made S-400 air defence system procured by Turkey is not buried, disposed of or sealed and the seals kept open for U.S. on-site inspections, the ball will not be rolling.
Ankara’s backtracking from its assertive and ambitious foreign policies also means realizing that for its increasingly strained economy its newly acquired friends in Moscow and Beijing will not able to get into saviours’ shoes. A “win-win” diplomatic solution for Erdoğan always meant “I keep what I deem is mine and you give me what is yours”. At present, that oriental version of a “win-win” deal is no longer in the cards. Time is up for some hard choices. Something needs to give in. Erdoğan’s “at the same time” approach reached its limits.
This outcome though underscores the fact that the EU does not exist, High Commissioner Borrell’s seat is an empty one. The post-COVID “fortress Europe” is even weaker than the previous conglomeration of garden-states. Contradictorily perhaps, seriously envisaging the re-opening of full accession talks of Turkey to the EU could have blown a new life to the present day bureaucratic behemoth –if not a giant sloth. The real “win-win” option would be the transformation of Turkey and the EU, “at the same time”.
For that to happen, one would need old-fashioned visionary statesmanship. Whereas, on the one hand medieval chaos reigns and authoritarian one-man rules if not outright oriental despotisms abound, on the other hand day-to-day management trumps leadership for the benefit of democracy. Furthermore, Erdoğan is convinced that time is on his side, that he would avoid full bankruptcy and losing the next election if he is patient enough. In short, he seems from his standpoint to opt for instilling sense in his counterparts and opponents alike by waiting them all out.
Rather unfortunately, the self-proclaimed “democratic” opposition in Turkey is no less provincialist and anachronic in its approach when it comes to foreign policy. Furthermore, the “democratic” opposition does not appear to have reached a joint understanding of what democracy truly is. So instead of encouraging Erdoğan to build a new foreign policy around the backbone of keeping full EU accession vocation alive, it tries to ridicule him by deriding his stepping back from the brink.
In short, absent any other meaningful change in the game, much will depend in the next couple months on the way U.S. Secretary of State Blinken will handle the Turkey file. A nose-dive of the national economy, a snub from Putin in Syria, a quick search for electoral victory may all combine as factors to facilitate bringing Turkey back to the fold of common values. One will need to admit as well that without mutual political will neither of the above will prove to be of any use and open yet another decade for more of the same.
Diplomacy is called an art not without a reason. Beyond the necessary establishment of hard boundaries, conviction skills, tact, sincerity and common sense too will need to get aligned in order to solve the issue. By finding a smart refined way to re-establish diplomatic communication with Ankara, the U.S. will also be indirectly helping Turkey out of its Islamist-nationalist party-state problem. For less anarchy in the future, more and better hybridisation is in demand. Rationality is in short supply on both sides of the aisle in Ankara nowadays but it’s still all we got. The quicker we come to our senses, the better for everyone it is.