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EU-US cooperation on Turkey

The arrival of US President-elect Joe Biden to the White House in January might bring greater US-EU cooperation on Turkey

Bassem Aly , Thursday 17 Dec 2020
EU-US cooperation on Turkey
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Turkish policies on defence and foreign affairs are clearly angering the Europeans and the Americans. On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the European Union intended to discuss “questions about arms exports” to Turkey with NATO allies and the United States.

She said that the EU, many of whose member states also have NATO membership, was looking forward to cooperation with the newly-elected administration of US President-elect Joe Biden on Turkey.

Merkel’s announcement came a few days after the EU decided to impose sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions taking part in Ankara’s controversial drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, an approach that was also adopted by the US starting this week.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has opposed such escalation by the EU, describing it as “biased and unlawful.” However, the EU has also been interested to discuss arms exports to Turkey with Washington, and its rejection of Turkish foreign policies thus seemingly goes beyond Turkey’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the ongoing sovereignty dispute with both Greece and Cyprus over territorial waters in the region.

Earlier this month, members of the European Parliament agreed on a resolution that included a call for “tough sanctions” against Turkey. The MEPs expressed their anger about Turkey’s foreign policy on a number of issues, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ankara’s “unilateral military actions” in the Eastern Mediterranean, “illegal activities” in the Varosha suburb of Famagusta city in Cyprus and military interventions in both Libya and Syria.

According to EU statistics agency Eurostat, the EU exported arms and ammunition, including missiles, to Turkey in 2018 worth 45 million Euros ($54.53 million). It also sold aircraft to Turkey worth billions of euros. As the United States is one of the largest exporters of arms to Turkey, the EU needs to cooperate with the Biden administration to force Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to comply with Western demands.

Many observers did not expect Western-Turkish tensions to reach this stage. Lenore Martin, an associate at Harvard University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies in the US, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the EU was clearly trying to avoid putting sanctions on Turkey, which explained why it had delayed the decision until December.

Martin said that some EU member states, including France, Austria, Greece and Cyprus, preferred sanctioning Turkey to “stop what is seen as a Turkey trying to remake the power structure in the Mediterranean.” Others, such as Germany, have sought “once again to bring the Turks to the table for substantive negotiations to end these long-held destabilising boundary claims, most especially between NATO allies Greece, Cyprus and Turkey,” Martin added.

But the imposition of sanctions reflects the extent of disagreements between both parties on regional and international issues, especially after the United States decided to go in the same direction as the Europeans. Biden described Erdogan last January as an “autocrat” and said that the US should support his domestic opponents to remove him from power through elections.

“He [Erdogan] has to pay a price,” Biden stressed.

The views of the outgoing Trump administration on Turkey also do not seem too far from those of the new president on how to deal with Erdogan. Trump decided to sanction Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile-defence system and military involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria.

Targeting Turkey’s defence industries, the US sanctions block assets that Turkish military procurement agency head Ismail Demir and three other top officials may possess in US jurisdictions and ban them from entering US territories. Turkey will also face a ban on the majority of export licences, loans and credits that are linked to the agency.

“Turkey will take the necessary steps against this decision, which will inevitably affect our relations in a negative way, and reciprocate in a way and time it sees fit,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded. 

The purchase of Russian weapons has caused tensions in US-Turkish relations, pushing Washington earlier to exclude Turkey from its F-35 stealth-fighter development and training programme. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that the gaining of Russian weapons by Turkey “would endanger the security of US military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defence sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defence industry.”

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD), a think tank, told the Weekly that Biden’s foreign and security policy team was made up of officials who believe in closer coordination with the European Union.

“The present efforts to sanction Turkey on both sides of the Atlantic, sanctions on Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air-defence system and EU sanctions for Ankara’s drilling in territorial waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece, are the harbingers of other sanctions to follow in 2021. The Erdogan government’s current crash course with almost all of Turkey’s neighbours in the Eastern Mediterranean is likely to isolate Ankara further, while encouraging neighbouring states to deepen their partnerships to contain Erdogan’s belligerence and irredentism,” he said.

“In 2021, we can expect to see greater US and EU involvement with Eastern Mediterranean countries as part of an attempt to provide assurances and support to countries targeted by the Erdogan government’s gunboat diplomacy and military posturing,” the ex-Turkish parliamentarian told the Weekly.

In a recently-published FDD report, ex-US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and Erdemir recommended that the US treat the Eastern Mediterranean as a “coherent strategic entity” and appoint a special envoy to “work closely with the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and challenge the Turkish government’s disruptive offshore claims.”

“Ankara’s hostile posture not only targets Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel, but also imperils US efforts to promote regional energy development that would reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. All of this requires an urgent recalibration of US strategy in the region,” the report warned.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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