How to remedy the deepening Turkey-EU confrontation?

Özdem Sanberk

Retired Ambassador

Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu (R) is seen with Borrell, EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. (Photo: Çavuşoğlu’s Twitter account)

If the previous generations of EU statesmen and Turkish leaders, the men who put together the Association Agreement in 1963, and the Additional Protocol of 1971 could see the state of Turkish-EU relations today, they would be deeply dismayed. Turkey has had a functioning Customs Union with the Union on industrial goods, for very nearly a century. It was working to the advantage of both sides. But the EU membership which was supposed to follow the Customs deal has never happened. And despite promises from Brussels a year or two back, talks about updating it never begun. 

As a result, there are other countries across the world (South Korea being one) that have better trading arrangements with the EU than we do.

Furthermore, as it is known, there are the tensions in the Aegean over prospecting rights on the seabed. In the press, there are extremely militant and unneighbourly remarks from our neighbor Greece. Even calls for the EU to defend it as if it was turning into an armed alliance against us.

Promises unkept

What has gone wrong? And what should we be doing on both sides to remedy the situation? The people who seek to blame Turkey and its recent policies for all these negative, and in some ways very alarming developments, seem to overlook some glaring truths. The most important of these is that Turkey applied to join the EU nearly 40 years ago. It was repeatedly promised that it was eligible, and had achieved the aforementioned Customs Union 24 years ago. But it was then kept out of the union because of the accession of the Greek Cypriots without a settlement on the divided island.

The Greek Cypriots applied many years after Turkey. Furthermore, they rejected the UN and EU peace proposals in a referendum. Yet they were still admitted as full members, with a veto right which they proceeded to deploy against the Turkish application. 

Assumed superiority

The EU – and the wider West –  were scrupulous to remain neutral between Greece and Turkey in the 1950s and 1960s. Only later did they take sides. They recognized a mini-state of about 800,000 people, and then took the view that they must side with it and against Turkey on every single matter in the name of ‘community solidarity’. To some observers, this looks not just high handed. It also seems to reflect an attitude of assumed superiority towards a neighbor.

Given that Turkey is a strategically crucial industrial country of 85 million people, this is an extraordinary course of action. And its consequences could be with us for centuries. It does not undo the malign consequences of EU policies to say everyone knows this, the decisions are irrevocable, and Turkey must just accept them. This is an ostrich attitude. It opened the floodgates of history to a succession of resentments and instabilities.


Turkey today is not just alarmed by the extraordinary maps which our Greek neighbors have come up with, and which would shrink our seabed rights to a very narrow strip around our southern coasts. Energy arrangements in the eastern Mediterranean are coming up, creating a sort of wall or blockade against Turkey. 

Though a gas route across Turkey would be the cheapest and most effective route for eastern Mediterranean gas, the planned 1,900 EastMed pipelines will transport 10 bn cubic meters a year, to  Greece and the Balkans.  A parallel project, the EuroAsia Interconnector, will also do the same for electrical power.

A wall, a barrier is being erected to exclude Turkey, the largest eastern Mediterranean country (excluding mini islands), with by far the longest coastline.

The EU’s responsibility

It’s not surprising under these circumstances that the Turkish response is loud and angry. First, the EU has rejected them as a member. Then it sets out to exclude our country from energy cooperation and prospecting rights and to demonize its objections. Tension is rising and the situation looks distinctly dangerous. If there were to be a catastrophic encounter, later generations would likely conclude that the EU’s one-sided exclusionary policies towards Turkey over the last two decades created the preconditions which made it possible.

Empathy and compromise are the solutions

What can be done? Well first, I think everyone in Turkey would like to see the tension taken out of our relations with Greece. And the way for that is for Ankara and Athens to negotiate in a spirit of compromise like it is now being discussed. That means that Brussels, Berlin, and other capitals should explain to Athens that a vendetta against Turkey will not enjoy the support of the EU, but that compromise will be rewarded.  

Second, Brussels should think about ways to improve trade and investment flows. Talk of sanctions against Turkey such as can already be heard will make relations much worse not better. There are trade economists who argue that Turkey should consider alternatives to the Customs Union if the EU will not update it. They do exist. Finally, ways of easing some aspects of the visa restrictions on travels to Europe could be examined and perhaps tried out.

The EU could be drifting towards a collision with Turkey, engineered by political forces within who want exactly that. The cost for both sides would be appalling. But our country is big enough to withstand it – and it does have viable alternatives. Instead of ramping up the rhetoric of hostility and distaste towards Turkey, which is too often the case in some European capitals these days, the first step should be an act of empathy. They should see how the developments of the last two decades in Turkey-EU relations look through the eyes of ordinary Turks who only ever wanted a closer and firmer partnership with the EU but faced rejection instead.


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