The European Union’s three red lines on Turkey

As the head of the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies, associated with the prestigious German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Günter Seufert is widely regarded as one of the leading experts on Turkey.

In this interview with Pavlov Papadopulos for Kathimerini newspaper, Seufert offers an analysis on how Ankara and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are viewed by leading European powers, as well as the United States and Russia.

We just heard that Turkey is planning a space mission to the moon by 2023. Is this yet another escalation of Erdoğan’s muscle-flexing intended for Western eyes? 

Nobody believes that his real goal is to fly to the moon. Perhaps he wants to increase the number of Turkish satellites and this is important for military reasons.

How do you explain Germany’s stance? Is it an indication that Berlin has silently accepted Turkey’s status as a regional power?

Naturally, yes. And it’s not only Germany. The same can be said about the U.S. Look at how reluctant the U.S. behaved in the process of sanctioning Turkey due to its acquisition of the S-400s [missile systems]. See also how Russia behaved in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia permitted Turkey to expand its influence over Azerbaijan. So, Russia also accepts Turkey as a regional power. And when you look at Turkey’s neighbours, then you see small states like Greece and Bulgaria in the West and failed states in the south – Syria and Iraq. You also see Iran, a state that for decades has been under huge international pressure. Therefore, Turkey is a regional power. It is a power in its region and today it’s expanding its influence in Africa. We have to be able to see it as a fact.

With U.S. President Joe Biden having succeeded Donald Trump, can we expect a realignment of Washington, Berlin and Paris to push Turkey back?

I think everybody is hoping for a more coordinated policy toward Turkey and I personally also hope that this is going to happen but I also see difficulties. In the last two European summits it was very difficult for the European Union to arrive at a common approach toward Turkey.

Do you see more of the same at the forthcoming March EU summit?

To be frank, yes. Turkey is now readjusting its policy in the region and its rhetoric toward Europe. It is doing so not because it fears a joint European response toward Ankara but because it anticipates a more principled policy from Washington. Turkey is now trying to come to terms with Egypt. It is also trying at least to establish more contacts with Israel and it has stopped its research in the eastern Mediterranean. We are seeing a moment of moderation. The question is how long will it last. But in terms of the EU I expect more of the same.

What would make Germany reverse course? 

There is maybe an implicit assumption that it is primarily or almost only Germany that prevents the European Union from taking a more confrontational stance toward Turkey. I don’t think this is the case. It is also very much Spain and Italy. They don’t have any interest in endangering their ties with Turkey. Spanish banks are heavily exposed to the Turkish financial system. Turkey was the largest single buyer of Spain’s armaments in 2020 while Italy was the largest European investor in Turkey. 

But there must be a red line. What would be the red line for Turkey? 

I see three developments that may unite Europe more against Turkey. First, it is Turkey’s choice to present itself as the representative of Muslims in Europe that, according to Ankara, are suppressed and excluded all over Europe. If it accelerates this way, it will unite Europe against Turkey. The second is Cyprus. There is a large consensus from the UN, the European Union and Washington regarding Cyprus. It’s really difficult for Turkey to challenge the established framework for a solution in Cyprus. A two-state solution will not be accepted. The third would be military clashes with Greece or along the Green Line in Cyprus. These would be red lines.

Biden’s Washington will be more assertive toward both Moscow and Ankara. But can Washington afford to lose Turkey to Russia? 

Turkey likes to play Washington and Moscow against each other. It did that very successfully with Trump. It will not be so easy with Biden. It will be difficult for the West to lose Turkey because NATO is the precondition for Turkey to deal with Russia. Turkey’s room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis Russia stems from its NATO membership. Therefore, Turkey is not going to be lost because Turkey needs NATO. Turkey depends on NATO. So NATO could be more assertive with Turkey.

In this case, what do you see happening regarding the S-400s? 

It’s a dilemma for Turkey. The U.S. might permit Turkey to have the S-400s but under on-site U.S. control of the system. And as long as Turkey is not going to agree to this, I think this remains a stumbling block. Turkey is now trying to establish a link between the S-400s and U.S. policy in Syria toward the Kurds in Syria. It wants the U.S. to stop supporting the Kurds in Syria.

Would the U.S. support an independent Kurdish state as a radical solution in dealing with Turkey? 

I have not thought about it. It is too far-fetched. After many failed interventions in the Middle East, from Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t see the U.S. trying another one. In the last weeks and months, Turkey has been in northern Iraq on a mission to defeat the PKK and it wants to do the same with the considered offspring of the PKK in Syria. Turkey wants to finish its so-called “Kurdish problem” with military means.

If Trump had been re-elected it could have been easier for them, but with Biden things are harder. Do you agree with that?

Yes, I totally agree. Washington’s policy will change. As you know, Brett McGurk is again on the playing field. He was managing the cooperation with the Kurds as a special envoy until 2018 and he is now back as National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. So, we’ll see what happens.

What’s next for Germany after 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel? Who will be the next leader?

We may see a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Greens. When it comes to Turkey, the Greens are on a different page. They are much more critical toward Turkey because of human rights and democracy. They are much more critical on military cooperation and arms industry sales. And also they are much more critical on the Kurdish issue. As for the next chancellor, it will most probably be Armin Laschet, today’s minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, who has been elected president of the Christian Democrats, although the name of Markus Söder from Bavaria, the president of the Christian Social Union, is also on the cards. Their style is different. Laschet’s style is more like the compromise-seeking Merkel. Söder styles himself as decisive and assertive.

(A version of this interview was originally published by Kathimerini and is reproduced by permission.)