With Turkey, the EU is acting on the maxim of realpolitik only - Ronald Meinardus

Bilateral relations are again at the top of both Turkey’s and the European Union’s agendas. Late last year, EU leaders agree to impose sanctions on Turkish entities involved in drilling for natural gas in disputed waters off the coast of member states Greece and Cyprus. Following a flurry of diplomatic activity, the threat was suspended at last month’s European Council meeting.  And EU chiefs Ursula Von der Leyen and Charles Michel are now due to make a follow-up visit to Ankara next week for a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Writing for news outlet New Europe, political commentator and analyst Ronald Meinardus assesses the EU’s strategy and what it means for Turkey.

Once again, relations with Turkey took centre stage at the European Union’s summit meeting. ”We are ready to put more concrete proposals on the table to have a more stable, more predictable relationship with Turkey”, said Charles Michel after the meeting. How to deal with Erdoğan’s Turkey? has become a regular agenda item when EU leaders convene.

While Ankara’s gradual sliding to an authoritarian order used to be the focus, foreign and security issues related to Turkey have become the main issue. In line with this, the official Council agenda did not mention “Turkey”, instead referring to the “eastern Mediterranean”,

For the European Union, the conflicts in and around the eastern Mediterranean have become a political top-priority. By a hair’s breath, Athens and Ankara came close to engaging in a military confrontation last year. Cyprus also has stakes in the regional dispute. Turkey has deployed troops in the north of the island ever since the forceful partition dating back to 1974. Of a more recent date are differences over maritime claims between Ankara and Nicosia.

Cyprus and Greece are both EU member states. The European Union has fully taken sides with them in their conflicts with Turkey. By so doing, Brussels has become a party in the dispute. From an EU- perspective, no less than the integrity of the external borders of the Union is at stake in the conflict with Ankara.    

Today, the quality of Turkey’s EU relations depends on the state of affairs of Turkish-Greek relations. The Europeans have created a political connection by linking progress in their relations with Turkey to Turkish behaviour – or good behaviour, to be more concrete – in the maritime issues of the eastern Mediterranean. This conditionality runs like a common thread through official EU statements.

The offer to Turkey is “a positive agenda, but conditional” says Charles Michel. “It means that we hope Turkey will maintain a moderate behaviour, positive behaviour”. When the President of the European Council says “positive behaviour”, he is not referring to Erdoğan’s domestic politics. Of course, he is aware of the human rights violations, the draconian clampdown against the opposition, and to top the series of illiberal provocations, Ankara’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing Violence against Women. But for Brussels, these aren’t the decisive points. An important takeaway from the summit has been that for the EU, what Erdoğan does within Turkey’s own borders is of secondary importance only.

Ankara’s conduct in the eastern Mediterranean is the key determinant of EU-policies vis-à-vis Erdoğan. “If Turkey does not move forward constructively, if it returns to unilateral actions or provocations, in particular in the eastern Mediterranean, of course, we would suspend the cooperation”, said European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen.

The government in Ankara has not overheard the admonitions and reacted with what observers have termed a “charm offensive”. Compared with last year, the situation in the eastern Mediterranean has calmed down. Erdoğan’s decision not to dispatch Turkish research vessels into disputed waters is the main reason for the détente. A moratorium of sorts governs Greek-Turkish relations. After the near-escalation and drama of last year, the present tranquillity may be termed a success story of European, and foremost German diplomatic interventions.

Following years of standstill, Athens and Ankara have resumed their bilateral talks. A meeting of foreign ministers is scheduled for mid-April. Speculation is rife that a Mitsotakis- Erdoğan summit could be the next step on the bumpy path towards trans-Aegean rapprochement.

The future will show whether, or for how long, Erdoğan is prepared to sacrifice his well-communicated maritime aspirations in a trade-off for better relations with the European Union. 

Meanwhile, sticking to the carrot and stick approach the summit has resolved to kick-start talks with Ankara on three main topics: the modernization of the Customs Union, the expansion of high-level political talks and migration. Both sides agree to the need to talk in these three areas. Both sides also agree that these talks are in their mutual interest.

If there is any one area in EU-Turkey relations that deserves the win-win-tag, it is the modernization of the Customs Union. Also: If it weren’t for the Turkish-Greek strife, cooperation on the refugee issue would top the list of EU-Turkey diplomacy. It is here that Europe’s offer of a “positive agenda” is most obvious. Irrespective of the European criticism thrown at Erdoğan’s Turkey, EU leaders hardly miss an opportunity to applaud Ankara’s hospitality towards the nearly four million Syrian refugees who have settled in the country. Brussels is willing to channel new funds to Turkey in an effort to ward off a new migration flow from Anatolia to Europe.

Importantly, also the talks on migration are ruled by a general caveat. The summit conclusions state that all engagement with Ankara would happen “in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner”. In this enumeration, the term “reversible” is decisive. In dealing with Turkey, the EU has decided to keep a backdoor open, an option to move away from the talks or to terminate them.  This option would come into effect should Ankara move away from the EU’s overreaching expectations concerning peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean. Or put differently: Should Erdoğan resume the explorations in disputed waters, Brussels would pull the plug.

The times when the EU discussed scenarios leading to Turkey’s membership are history. In today’s dealings with Turkey, normative values have no place. The EU is acting on the maxim of Realpolitik only. Mentions of human rights and democracy have degenerated to lip service. “The EU now sees us almost like Russia”, says retired Turkish Ambassador Oğuz Demiralp: “Let Turkey do what it wants to do unless it hurts me.”