The European Union (EU) is escalating its stance against Turkey, but how far it will go in this regard appears questionable. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) agreed on a resolution last Thursday that includes a call for the pan-European organisation to impose “tough sanctions” against Turkey. In their press statement, MEPs expressed 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 and “illegal activities” in the Varosha suburb of Famagusta city in Cyprus.
A final decision on whether or not to sanction Turkey will likely be made during the EU summit 10 December.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman slammed the resolution and accused the European Parliament of being “prejudiced and disconnected from the realities” about Cyprus. “If this approach and mentality are maintained, it would not be possible for EU bodies to make a constructive contribution to the settlement of the Cyprus issue,” Hami Aksoy said.
The EU-Turkish disconnect extends to other issues, including Ankara’s stalled accession to the EU. The EU has long been unhappy with the Turkish human rights record. But the EU became fed up with Turkey after the visit of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the reopened resort of Varosha. The Turkish military fenced off Varosha after invading Cyprus in 1974, preventing Greek Cypriots who escaped Varosha from returning. Cyprus has been split since then between the south that is a member state of the EU and the isolated, Turkey-backed north. Only Turkey recognises northern Cyprus as a sovereign, independent state.
So far, EU policy appears to be built on threats of sanctions rather than action, Aykan Erdemir, senior director of Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Erdemir, an ex-Turkish parliamentarian, argued that Turkey believes that this increases the EU’s “credibility deficit and undermines its deterrence”. However, he added, the “fragile nature of the Turkish economy” puts Ankara in a situation in which it would like to avoid “even symbolic sanctions” and has “recently launched a charm offensive by reiterating Turkey’s commitment” to the EU. “Although all parties involved know that this is empty rhetoric aimed at saving face, it can still suffice for Brussels to postpone sanctions yet another time. Erdogan has been a keen observer of the European Union’s shortcomings and inaction, and is unlikely to take a step back from his belligerent policy in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Erdemir pointed out.
In a report published in October, the World Bank warned that Turkey’s “overall macroeconomic picture is more vulnerable and uncertain” amid “rising inflation and unemployment, contracting investment, elevated corporate and financial sector vulnerabilities, and patchy implementation of corrective policy actions and reforms.” The report also referred to the impact of both Covid-19 and “ongoing geopolitical tensions in the subregion”.
In early October, the Turkish lira reached a 25 per cent slide in 2020, getting closer to the $8 mark. According to Reuters, Turkish companies and financial bodies have to deal with $10 billion in debt repayments during the coming two months. These internal developments in Turkey can, at least partially, explain why Turkey decided to withdraw Oruc Reis, a ship conducting seismic research for drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterreanean, ahead of the summit and amidst a sovereignty dispute with both Greece and Turkey over waters in this area.
Turkey’s discourse about Europe became also more pacifist in recent weeks. On 21 November, Erdogan told a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) that “we see ourselves in Europe, not in a different place. We foresee building our future with the EU.” Talks over Turkey’s accession to the EU have stopped because of the conflict over Cyprus. Some MEPs believe that membership negotiations should be totally cancelled. The transit of migrants to Europe is another sore point. The EU has refused pressure from Turkey, which hosts about four million migrants, to send those it hosts in its territories from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to EU member states. Turkey accuses the EU of not abiding by its financial commitments stipulated in a 2016 agreement, which deems that the refugees will remain in Turkey.
Erdogan’s positive discourse on Europe and the withdrawal of the Oruc Reis can arguably be seen as attempts to ease tensions with Brussels. Kadir Yildirim, fellow at Rice University’s Centre for the Middle East, said that the EU “lacks the leverage and the internal unity to compel a change in Turkey’s policy on this issue”. “The EU cannot present a unified bloc; the hardline represented by France and the softline represented by Germany’s leadership are unlikely to come to a resolution on this issue, and most certainly not before the Biden administration officially begins on 20 January 2021,” explained Yildrim. Yildrim also believes, as a counter-strategy, Erdogan “would channel popular anti-Western, anti-European sentiment in Turkey to push back against sanctions and harden its position on Eastern Mediterranean” if the EU decided to impose sanctions.
This is a carrot and stick situation, Lenore Martin, associate for Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, told the Weekly. Martin said that the EU is clearly trying to avoid putting sanctions on Turkey, which explains why it delayed the decision until December. Martin said that some EU member states, including France, Austria, Greece and Cyprus, prefer 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.
“The recent confrontation between Germany and Turkey may weaken Germany’s determination to avoid sanctions. As for the carrots, the EU has offered negotiations on better trade deals as well as updating the Customs Union agreement with Turkey, something Ankara has wanted for some years. It has also stated it would be open to negotiating a better deal on the EU-Turkey migration agreement, if Turkey would seriously move away from its aggressive positions in the Mediterranean. The EU is also an important trading partner for Turkey,” Martin concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly