Since the July 11 – 12, 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Turkey – European Union relations have started to be discussed again. However, it is important to see if there is any substance to this debate. Relations have gone backwards, especially since the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, the seventh anniversary of which we just marked.
After three summits between Turkey and the EU between September 2015 and June 2016 to prevent illegal migration, and after a period when relations were on the road to recovery, there was a rapid regression in the areas of fundamental rights and rule of law in Turkey. The steps Ankara took in response to the initiatives of Greece, Southern Cyprus and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, which took advantage of Turkey’s isolation during a period of what was then called “precious loneliness”, created a separate political tension with the EU.
As a result, new conditions were placed on accession talks, the updating of the Customs Union and visa exemption, which are fundamental elements of our dealings with the EU. As a result, relations have not only failed to improve, they have gone backwards and become almost frozen. The government, which pursued an anti-Western policy, was not distressed with this situation. Until the economy hit a dead end.
Backward steps, difficult conditions
As the AKP government enters its third decade, President Tayyip Erdoğan’s EU statement prior to the NATO Summit gave the perception that the government has learned from the mistakes of its second decade and will return to its first decade. We will soon find out whether this perception is true or not. In its early years, the AKP made a sincere effort to secure EU membership.
Reforms were being undertaken in all areas, Turkey’s international reputation was improving and foreign investment was pouring in. Various supervisory institutions were being established and their independence was emphasized. The Turkish economy was in such a state that we were one of the largest aid donors to developing countries and were proud of it. Is there anybody talking about this now?
The EU has a share in the decline
We cannot attribute the stagnation of relations with the EU in the second decade of AKP rule solely to the government. In 2005, when we started accession negotiations, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy in France managed to push Turkey away. The AKP, too, in the self-confidence of its early successes, was suddenly influenced by the Arab popular movements and began to pursue an ideological and even more personal foreign policy. We have seen the results together. During this period, our relations not only with the West but also with Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of Qatar, deteriorated significantly. Even though we were sometimes right, as with Saudi Arabia, our self-confidence went through the roof and we “showed off” to everyone. As a result, we had fewer and fewer friends.
The economy determines foreign policy
However, the government foresaw the problems that started especially in economic terms, which led to attempts to repair the deteriorated relations as of the end of 2020. Some of these attempts had some results in a short time while those like Egypt took a longer time. But once trust is broken, it is not easy to get it back. Turkey’s Achilles heal became clear. When the financial resources that could be obtained from Qatar reached a limit, Turkey turned to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but since the main resources are in the West, a change was needed. However, the rhetoric against the West and the EU’s rigid stance reinforced mutual distrust.
Interestingly, while the closeness with Russia, especially at the level of the Heads of State, caused problems between Turkey and the West, no one could have predicted that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine would pave the way for an improvement in the relations with the West. It has to be admitted that Ankara followed a balanced process by pursuing a classical policy inherited from the Ottoman Empire. And in this it succeeded. While Turkey condemned Russia’s aggression in international meetings and provided arms to Ukraine, there was no confrontation with Moscow and even a grain deal was struck.
Consolation prize rather than a win
Another unexpected development as a result of this invasion was the applications of Finland and Sweden for NATO membership. This created an opportunity for Turkey. In a way, Turkey’s objection was justified by the arms embargo these two countries had against Turkey, as well as their timidness in the fight against terrorism. However, as the issue dragged on, the perception started to turn against Turkey. The United States brought up Turkish requests for F-16s. Even if Washington and Ankara maintained that there was no connection between Sweden’s NATO membership and the F-16s, the existence of such a connection was obvious.
Those who thought that we had won on the F-16s in exchange for our approval of Sweden at the NATO Summit should remember that this was essentially a consolation prize. If Turkey had not bought the S-400 missiles from Russia, which it does not use, it would be in the process of acquiring the state-of-the-art F-35s. Moreover, many parts of these aircraft were being produced in Turkey. We were left with a model that lagged behind this aircraft, and Turkish companies suffered losses. Not only will Turkey no longer have access to the F-35s, but our neighbors will own them.
The EU and NATO support comedy
Those who followed the issue knew that this would somehow be resolved at the Vilnius Summit. But Ankara still surprised us all with its sudden announcement of making Turkey’s EU accession process an additional condition. Why this was done when it is obvious that there is no connection between the two issues is a question for the President’s advisors. The EU’s negative response to this “condition”, which did not last for twenty-four hours, was immediate. Asking Sweden for support for Turkey’s accession process is the easiest thing for Stockholm to accept. After all, decisions are taken collectively within the EU and Turkey has a lot of conditions to fulfill. The NATO Secretary General’s announcement that he supports Turkey’s EU membership is amusing to say the least. NATO has no influence on this issue. Not to mention the fact that the Secretary General comes from Norway, a country that has twice rejected EU membership.
Erdoğan should hear from his own advisor
At the summit, President Erdoğan also raised the issue of relations with the EU in his talks with his EU counterparts. The EU also wants to improve the situation with Turkey, but the interests and expectations of the parties are so different.
It was announced that the President will send his advisor Akif Çağatay Kılıç to Brussels on this issue. I think this is a very good decision. Thus, he will hear from his own advisor what steps Turkey needs to take, rather than from the Foreign Ministry, which he has difficulty trusting.
Only visa exemption and Customs Union
Regarding visa exemption, which is the most concrete issue for our citizens, six conditions that have not been fulfilled despite our various promises for seven years will be explained. Among them, it will be reminded that the anti-terrorism law must be changed. While seven years ago the EU, under pressure from the illegal migration tide, would accept the slightest change in the law, he will hear whether the EU is in the same position now.
On the issue of updating the Customs Union, new conditions unnecessarily imposed by the EU will be on the agenda. Not only will the backsliding in reforms be pointed out, but demands such as easing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean will be repeated. However, elements such as the digital economy and green transformation should be added to this update, which would benefit both sides. The EU’s imposition of preconditions even for the start of negotiations on this issue does not allow for progress.
Membership negotiations are already frozen. Turkey probably doesn’t have any expectations about this. Thus, Ankara only brought up the visa issue and the Customs Union.
Will the EU invite Turkey?
Another matter is the decrease in dialogue. This is where we should want the EU to move. Instead of Turkey meeting its EU counterparts only on the occasions of the G-20, United Nations or NATO Summits, more frequent and direct contacts would be appropriate. After 2004, high-level contacts were interrupted until the migration crisis in 2015. Both sides were negatively affected. Let’s see if the EU will invite Turkey to the informal meeting of Foreign Ministers to be held on August 30 in Toledo, Spain, called Gymnich, to which we were last invited in February 2019. Sweden missed this opportunity.
What the EU wants from us is first of all not to move too far away from the West. It wants us to be close to it in some way, but it cannot take facilitating steps in this regard. It will prefer cooperation on issues such as illegal migration, environment, climate change and energy. In any case, our relations will now be conducted in a different framework. We need to put forward what we want realistically, but this requires serious work.
NATO, Russia and the Middle East balance
The relations between Turkey and Russia may not remain so amiable after Ankara supported Ukraine’s NATO membership and gave the green light to Sweden’s entry into NATO. Perhaps the thinking is that Russia’s failed attempt to invade Ukraine and the Wagner group’s bizarre rebellion have weakened Putin. But Russia’s opposition to the continuation of the grain deal seems to have been the first consequence of turning back on Russia. Let’s see if Putin will actually come to Turkey in the coming days as expected.
Yes, Turkey has recently made a U-turn on many issues. It was announced that Turkey would never talk to Greece again, but the two sides came together at the NATO Summit. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was declared a murderer, the United Arab Emirates was accused of supporting FETÖ and there was always an opportunity to criticize Israel. We didn’t like Egypt because it was ruled by a coup leader, Damascus was already considered evil. Turkey has reconciled or efforts are underway to do so with all of them.
Will the U-turns give results?
There is only one area where a U-turn has not, will not or cannot be made. And that is fundamental rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. When the President was asked about this at the press conference after the Vilnius Summit, he said that the journalist did not know Turkey and that “Turkey has no problems with democracy, rights and freedoms”.
I believe the President’s advisor found that this point of view is seen quite differently in Brussels. Let’s see if he can explain these points to the President. If Turkey wants to be worthy of itself in the new century with its economy and politics, it must make a U-turn on fundamental rights, freedoms and the rule of law. Otherwise, no progress should be expected on any issue.