What lies beneath the hostile rhetoric in Turkish-EU relations?

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“George and Hans cannot defeat us”. That is what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a gathering of his supporters in the Anatolian city of Manisa on May 28. Hans is the German doppelganger of George – the personification of the US. 

There was a time when Erdogan marketed himself, both domestically and internationally, as a friend of the West, but that is now only a fading memory. He presently stands for the Turkish nation fighting back foreigners whose main objective is to stem its rise.

The presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 presented a golden opportunity to rally voters behind this flag, especially at a time when the lira was depreciating, pumping consumer prices, raising consternation among ordinary Turks and providing a tailwind for the opposition “Nation Alliance”.

Erdogan prevailed. Harnessing nationalism, he won in the first round of the presidential race, defying predictions for a runoff with the charismatic Muharem Ince from the People’s Republican Party (CHP). Meanwhile, the governing AK Party and its coalition partner, the ultranationalist MHP, retained control over the Grand National Assembly. 

On the other side, the rhetoric has also sharply escalated. Western publications have depicted the elected Turkish president as a dictator and a tyrant and have described his supporters as an “Islamist mob”. Germany, the Netherlands and Austria barred Erdogan and his party from holding election rallies for the large Turkish diasporas there.

Meanwhile, Greece has upped its alarmist rhetoric, saying that it is ready to respond to “Turkish aggression”. In their fearmongering tactics, Greek politicians have gone as far as evoking the Ottoman past, with Greek PM Alexis Tsipras calling Erdogan “a sultan”.

In the end, no EU leader apart from Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev honoured Erdogan’s inauguration on July 9.

However, let the rhetoric not deceive you. Turkey is not about to part ways with the EU.

Why Turkey and the EU can’t break up

First, both Ankara and Brussels are keeping the pretence of membership negotiations, though each party knows that it is a dead-end street. EU foreign ministers concluded on June 26, two days after the elections, that talks have come “to a standstill”. Predictably, Ankara slammed their stance. However, neither Erdogan nor his counterparts in the EU are prepared to pull the plug, figuratively speaking, and take the responsibility.


Second, business ties are booming despite the political tensions that poison diplomatic exchanges. In 2017, the EU accounted for 36.4 percent of Turkey’s imports and 47.1 percent of exports. That means the union is still Ankara’s top trading partner.

To put it in perspective, the second and third-largest exporters to Turkey are, respectively, China and Russia (Ankara’s main energy partner) and together they hold 18.3 percent of its imports. As for Turkish exports, the United Arab Emirates, the second in rank, and Iraq, the third, take 5.8 percent each. 

Europe still keeps a lead in foreign direct investment – $4.85bn, or 65.2 percent of the total. For better or worse, Turkey is firmly linked to the EU economy. 

Third, although membership is not in the cards, Turkey has not given up on EU integration. It hopes it could upgrade the Customs Union, in place since 1996, and get a better deal in sectors such as agriculture, trade in services, and public procurement.  

Improved access to EU markets could be the driver of growth and development at a time when the Turkish economy is looking increasingly vulnerable – be it because of long-standing structural problems or because of mismanagement on the part of the Turkish government. 

The fact that one of Erdogan’s first decisions upon returning as president was to curtail even further the autonomy of the Central Bank is hardly reassuring for the international financial markets. The appointment of Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and former energy minister, as the new finance minister is not likely to calm foreign investors’ concerns either. 

Turkey would also like to see Schengen visa requirements lifted for its citizens travelling to the EU.  According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, EU neighbours such as Greece and Bulgaria are high on the list of destinations. There are large diasporas in Western Europe with people holding dual nationality. In short, as opinion polls show too, the EU has not lost its attractiveness in Turkey.

Fourth, the Europeans have shown an appetite to strike side deals with Erdogan. The 2016 agreement on asylum seekers, involving the transfer of $3.3bn has, by and large, stuck. There is a clear interest to extend it. 

The recent summit in Varna, Bulgaria, attended by Erdogan and the heads of the EU Council and the European Commission Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, failed to make headway. However, at the European Council meeting on June 29, which was focused heavily on containing migration, the 28 member states agreed to go forward with the transfer of another $3.3bn for the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey.  Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos attended Erdogan’s swear-in ceremony – a clear signal as to where the EU’s priorities lie.

The Europeans’ dirty secret is that they might benefit from the Turkish push to carve a territory in northwest Syria under Ankara’s control. Northern Aleppo, Afrin and, possibly, the Idlib governorate might turn into a buffer zone containing potential refugees.  

Lastly, Turkey remains indispensable for the EU’s effort to boost its energy security. An importer of hydrocarbons, Ankara shares the EU’s interest in diversifying gas supplies away from Russia, which now accounts for close to 60 percent of its consumption.

The Trans Anatolian Pipeline, which was inaugurated on June 12, marks a key step in completing the so-called Southern Gas Corridor promising to link European consumers to the energy producers in the Caspian region and beyond. 

Why Turkey and the EU can’t fully make up either

Resilient though they might be, Turkey’s ties to the EU are deeply flawed. Rather than being based on common values and commitments, they have become transactional. 

The European Commission pulls no punches when it comes to documenting the Turkish authorities’ infringements on democratic and human rights. Yet Europe as a whole has given up the ambition to transform Turkey in its own image.

In fact, it has itself struggled with human rights violations perpetrated against refugees, migrants and minorities and the rise of populist strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has been compared to Erdogan in the western press. 

The pre-election rally the Turkish president held in Sarajevo also fostered fears, in the Balkans and the EU alike, that Ankara is mounting a challenge against the West. 

Mainstream European policymakers seem to view Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a similar light: As adversaries with whom circumstances force you to do business from time to time.

That is why a reset between EU and Turkey following the elections is unlikely. Senior politicians in Europe, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, oppose the upgrade of the Customs Union. 

Heads might cool down, no doubt, as Turkey and EU sit back to talk, but a real breakthrough is unlikely.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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