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Dimitar Bechev
Aug 10 2018

Turkey is fighting with the U.S. but making peace with Europe

Turkey’s quarrel with United State is getting worse by the day. Last week, the U.S. Treasury moved to freeze the assets of Abdulhamit Gül and Süleyman Soylu, the ministers of justice and the interior, as a punishment for the continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey would impose retaliatory sanctions on the United States’ justice and interior ministers. As there are no such posts within the U.S. government the likely targets are the Attorney General Jeff Sessions and either Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior, or Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security. I would be surprised if any of those officials have any assets of significance in Turkey. Besides, Sessions and Nielsen already have plenty of other problems to deal with to worry about Turkey.

Everyone is fully aware that we are watching a Punch-and-Judy show designed to rally Republican voters in the United States and show Erdoğan’s base that Turkey will not be bullied. But in an ideal world, there would be a quid pro quo. Brunson could be exchanged for someone like Mehmet Hakan Atilla, Halkbank’s deputy general manager sentenced to 32 months in jail for helping Iran evade sanctions.

U.S. laws largely rule out such horse-trading, even if the Trump administration had all the good will. But if a quid pro quo does not work, Turkey can also do tit-for-tat and still scramble to forge a deal of some sort, as the talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Singapore suggest.

The question is at what cost, and who will foot the bill. Picking fights with the U.S. government and coming under sanctions is making investors jittery. The Istanbul stock exchange is down and the Turkish lira continued to fall against the major global currencies. The slump was helped by an announcement by the U.S. trade representative that duty-free access for $1.6 billion of Turkish imports could be reviewed. Erdoğan might be forced to back off and even release Brunson. The proviso, however, is that he will need some sort of a face saving option, which the Trump administration, it is safe to assume on the basis of its hitherto diplomatic record, might fail to provide.

What is also curious is that the escalating fight with the United States comes simultaneously with a thaw in Turkey’s relations with the European Union. Now that Turkey’s June presidential and parliamentary elections are done and dusted, Erdoğan can afford to dial down tensions with key European states. On July 20, Çavuşoğlu agreed with his Dutch colleague Stef Blok to restore diplomatic relations.  Ambassadors will be heading back to Ankara and The Hague. Two days later Germany lifted restrictions targeted at Turkey. It did not renew the cap of 1.5 billion euros in guarantees offered to German companies exporting to the Turkish market.  Berlin also relaxed the official advisory concerning travel to Turkey. These measures were imposed in 2017 in response to the Turkish renewal of the state of emergency and for its arbitrary arrests of German citizens. But in February, Turkey released Deniz Yücel, a detained German-Turkish journalist, in a concession to Berlin. The state of emergency was then lifted in July.

It is tempting to conclude that Europeans have proven better than Trump in practising the art of the deal with Erdoğan. Pragmatism has gotten the upper hand. It is worth remembering that on June 28, the European Council, a gathering of heads of state and government, authorised the release of a second 3 billion euro tranche to Ankara aimed at helping Syrian refugees. The deal struck back in March 2016 has been renewed.

The United States meanwhile is putting the human rights first. If only. The fact remains that U.S.-Turkey relations are rooted in a strategic calculus by both sides. The Trump administration cares about Brunson mostly because it is an issue its constituents take to heart. It has kept quiet about countless other examples of repressions and human rights violations tarnishing Turkey’s record.

Conversely, do not hasten to see the Europeans as dyed-in-the-wool cynics. At the end of the day, the EU still adheres to the principle of political conditionality. It will not start negotiations on upgrading its customs union with Turkey or, for that matter, on visa liberalisation unless Ankara meets the requirements. Individual member states might wish to cut all kinds of bargains with Erdoğan, but collectively the EU has more limited room to manoeuvre. In short, the current thaw with Turkey has its limits.