Absence of an EU-Turkey strategic partnership undermines regional security

Absence of an EU-Turkey strategic partnership undermines regional security
“PM Davutoğlu visits the EP” by Martin Schulz – Former EP President (2012 – 2017) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The European Council summit in December 2020 presented an opportunity for Brussels to formalise a strategic partnership with Turkey to manage the crises in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya. Instead, it exposed divergence between France and Germany over how the EU should confront Ankara’s assertive foreign policy. Whilst French President Macron is in favour of putting strong pressure on Turkey’s President Erdogan, German Chancellor Merkel believes that it is vital to remain open to dialogue. This lack of strategic clarity puts regional security at risk given the importance of Turkish cooperation with Brussels over handling common issues in irregular migration and local conflict.

The EU half-confronts Turkey over Cyprus 

The European Union is struggling to take collective action on Turkey’s assertive foreign policy under President Erdogan. The conclusions adopted at the European Council reflect divergence between Paris and Berlin over how the EU-27 should confront Turkey, thereby leaving Brussels paralysed in finding a common strategy.  

On the one hand, France has been keen to put strong EU pressure on Ankara in response to the escalation of tensions with Cyprus. The decision by Paris to send in its navy to support the integrity of Cypriot territorial waters can be explained by Macron’s reform ambitions to give Brussels greater powers over foreign policy-making.

France also finds an incentive to take a firm stance against Turkish incursions in its aim to establish new EU energy supply sources, which has so far been dependent on Russia. Cyprus and Egypt, along with other Eastern Mediterranean countries, signed a charter in September that enabled European access to the Egyptian energy market. Despite fears in Turkey of its exclusion from this process, pursuit of EU energy diversification policy encourages Macron to take a harsh tone on Erdogan’s unilateralism. 

However, Germany is adopting a conciliatory approach to the crisis. The European Council recognised Berlin’s interest in developing cooperative and mutually-beneficial relations with Turkey as it is proving to be a vital trading partner. In 2015, the European Commission and the Turkish Economy Ministry made a commitment to liberalise trade in areas including public procurement and services. Turkey today accounts for more than half of EU foreign direct investment as a result and, particularly with the economic implications of Covid-19 for small and medium-sized enterprises, European companies find a reliable asset in Ankara’s participation in their supply chains

With uncertainty surrounding the EU’s fiscal response to the pandemic and China’s replacement of the US as the dominant source of global economic growth, maintaining Turkish engagement in EU trade is a key policy consideration for Berlin.

Why is Turkey crucial to EU interests? 

Although Germany and France disagree over the response to the Eastern Mediterranean issue, Turkish cooperation remains vital for advancing EU security interests.

Firstly, the displacement of civilians as a result of conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region means that Turkey holds a strategic position in managing the issue. This can be seen in the 2016 deal that saw Ankara agreeing to protect Syrian refugees, implement border security and share information in return for EU financial assistance. The agreement delivered on its objective as irregular migration decreased by 97% two years after it was put into effect. 

EU-Turkey coordination on the issue of migration is becoming increasingly important given the socio-economic pressures that the pandemic has put on the wider population in tandem with the escalation of hostilities in Idlib. Keeping dialogue open between Brussels and Ankara will therefore be critical to containing the crisis near Turkey’s southern border.

Secondly, in the area of regional conflict, although Erdogan’s intervention in Libya led Macron to accuse the Turkish president of increasing the terrorist threat in Europe, it strengthened the position of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

This may be seen as a positive development for the EU neighbourhood given the far from stable situation in Libya since the Franco-British intervention in 2011. According to a report on the UK’s Libya strategy by the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, North Africa witnessed a spread of weaponry and the growth of Isis despite the fall of the Gaddafi regime. 

For all its potential to diminish EU influence, it is not unreasonable to suggest that it would be in Brussels’ interests to recognise the stabilising role Ankara plays in the region. 

Lack of strategic clarity strengthens Erdogan and leaves the EU weak in meeting regional challenges

The European Council conclusions on the Eastern Mediterranean, whilst still trying to balance diverging French and German positions, leaves the EU unable to pursue a coherent strategy and thereby puts it on the backfoot when it comes to advancing its core interests.

This can be seen in the minimal impact that the threat of sanctions proves to have on changing Ankara’s decision-making. The cut in European Investment Bank (EIB) funding in infrastructure development did not deter Erdogan’s ambitions in Cyprus and Libya. And it is unlikely that adding more Turkish officials or organisations to the list of those currently with travel bans and asset freezes will alter calculations since the case of the EIB drop in funding lacked credibility. 

Notwithstanding the loss of Turkey’s main lender in the EIB, it was not expected that private sector projects and EIB deals of around €350m would be affected. So while sanctions may serve as a Franco-German compromise, this approach only strengthens Erdogan and leaves the EU without much leverage. 

The dysfunctional EU-Turkey relationship poses a wider risk to regional security. On irregular migration, the German EU rotating presidency missed the opportunity to revisit the 2016 deal with Ankara and manage the situation in northern Syria. The focus of the new migration pact instead was on settling misgivings that some member states held over mandatory relocation of asylum seekers from Greece

Turning to Libya, Brussels also found itself unable to lead an initiative with Turkey to resolve the issue. The Berlin Conference, a summit that the EU hoped would form the basis of a political solution to the crisis, failed to deter the United Arab Emirates from providing military support to GNA opposition in Haftar’s Libyan National Army and left Ankara free to intervene on behalf of the UN-backed government.

Although Turkey is key to the process of EU neighbourhood stabilisation, Brussels’ lack of strategic clarity towards its relationship with Ankara means that the EU will struggle to meet regional policy challenges while allowing Erdogan to pursue his geopolitical agenda on his terms.

Categories: Europe, Security

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