The European Council has big problems to deal with this week, such as Brexit and the EU budget. Yet among the Brussels summit’s other challenges is to review the bloc’s relationship with Turkey, which is close to rupture with no sign of anything to replace it.
This long and turbulent association always needed creative diplomats on both sides. In the past five years, however, much like Turkey’s relationship with the west as a whole, it has been on the brink of collapse. European leaders tend to blame President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for this. Yet while they rightly emphasise his autocratic tendencies, they also often neglect his episodic pragmatism. The EU, in fact, has relinquished its once prodigious leverage in Turkey.
Turkey’s EU accession talks, kicked off with fanfare in 2005, were gradually halted soon after. That shut down what for Turkey had been a transformative engine of democratic renewal and reform, helping curb the army which has long been the final arbiter in Turkish politics.
The acrimonious collapse of a 2004 UN plan to reunify Cyprus, divided since 1974 between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, was part of the problem. More damagingly, France, Germany and others kept raising the barriers to EU entry against Turkey, as they feel it is too big, too poor and — rarely stated but taken as read — too Muslim.
Instead of acting as a strategic anchor, the EU helped cut Turkey loose from its western moorings. To growing anger across the Turkish political spectrum, the EU has blown hot and cold ever since, warming to Ankara opportunistically, such as when it desperately needed help holding back the Syrian refugees heading for Europe in 2016.
This was tawdry realpolitik. But Brussels did not really follow through on the agenda it set out as part of the migration deal. It pressed its own concerns while ignoring Ankara’s and was seen by Turkey to act in bad faith. Ankara had expected at least an upgrade of the customs union it entered with the EU in 1995, as well as action on visa exemptions and regular dialogue. Now there is no longer even a dialogue of the deaf.
Part of the reason for this is Mr Erdogan’s vast purges. They followed the violent coup attempt of July 2016, which was spearheaded by his former Islamist allies in institutions such as the army and the security services. The clampdown is still being used to stifle dissidence and hamstring opposition.
After three terms as prime minister, Mr Erdogan ascended to the presidency and surged towards one-man rule, undermining the independence of the judiciary, replacing parliamentary rule with a toothless national assembly, abolishing the role of prime minister, and purging his ruling neo-Islamist party of rivals. This power-grab made Turkey ineligible for EU membership.
Mr Erdogan seems to have concluded that deploying hard power abroad serves him better than aligning with the enfeebled soft power of, by his lights, duplicitous Europeans. From Syria to Libya, he seems bent on neo-Ottoman irredentism. He is staking a big maritime claim to the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and its gas riches. And while the European Council deliberates in Brussels this week, Mr Erdogan will be in Azerbaijan at a pan-Turkic victory parade, after helping it retake Armenian-held territory in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey is a difficult customer. It is a Nato member but buys Russian air defence systems. It is a G20 member, but hosts Hamas. This difficulty is not just because of Mr Erdogan. As Hugh Pope and Nigar Goksel, veteran Turkey-watchers at International Crisis Group, put it in a paper this month: “Turkey has always done things its own way: building bridges one moment, bridgeheads the next.” The EU used to be Turkey’s most important bridge.
The EU still has levers. More than half of Turkish trade and investment is European. Turkey badly needs an enhanced customs union, the rules for which could help shore up a crumbling rule of law. But the EU needs to be more alert to other things Turkey might want.
After the United Arab Emirates normalised relations with Israel this year, Turkey moved to patch up a decade-old row with the Israelis — part, diplomats say, of its rivalry with the UAE. Indeed, a senior Turkish official scorns what he sees as Emirati aims to supplant Turkey in western eyes. The UAE “is a smart but small country, and it should understand its limits, trying to fill the vacuum left by Turkey, which always used to have good relations with Israel as the Muslim country for the west”.
Mr Erdogan’s bluster and belligerence can hardly be ignored, but there are signs Turkey still wants to be that country. The EU and the west should explore and exploit all such signs.