Who has the upper hand? Turkey vs. the EU: a difficult marriage

By Egle Gargantini, Gabriele Grossi, and Carolina Sassoli

“With these — let us call them for what they are — dictators, which we, however, need to cooperate with … one has to be frank in expressing a diversity of views, opinions, behaviors, visions of society. Moreover, they have to be ready to cooperate to safeguard the interests of their country. It is important. We have to find the right equilibrium.”
Mario Draghi, 8th April 2021 

How did the relationship trouble?

Turkey has become one of the most critical and controversial partners of the European Union. Their relationship has been worsening throughout the last decade, with a steep decline in the confrontation since the failed coup of 2016 that has dramatically deteriorated the democracy and the human rights quality. Despite the European Union being four times more populated than Turkey and having 20 times the GDP, Turkey has trouble the EU on the international arena on multiple occasions, as in the latest-discussed case of the “Sofa-gate,” which has embarrassed the leaders of the EU.

During the Summit, they discussed the future of the agreement of 2016. It was stipulated to deal with the “refugee crisis” that troubled the EU throughout 2014-2015. The arrangement provides a financial flow from the EU towards Turkey in exchange for the latter’s commitment to shut down the immigration channel from the East. At first, the deal with Turkey was made in a logic of emergency. However, it has been in place ever since. Turkey has been accumulating up to 4 million refugees throughout the years, of which 3.6 are from Syria. Since the agreement, Turkey has been able to obtain the upper hand over the relationship with the European Union, as made explicit by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016 after the conclusion of the accord: “The European Union needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the European Union.” In the last years, Erdogan has been using migrants as a threat against the European Union, particularly against Greece. In March 2020, he ordered to open the frontiers in retaliation to a lack of support from the EU in Syria.

An economic and military issue

The border relationship between the two actors has also been declining due to Turkey’s unauthorized drilling activities of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has expanded its oil and gas exploration activities in Cyprus, and Greece considers its territorial waters. In November 2019, the EU condemned Turkey’s “illegal drilling activities” and imposed sanctions on Turkish oil company officials. It came after months of calls to cease the illegal activities and in the spirit of assessing and reaffirming the full solidarity with Cyprus and its sovereignty. However, despite the sanctions, Ankara has driven a second exploratory ship at the end of 2019, named Yavuz, a third ship at the start of 2020, Kanuni, a perforating vessel, and even a fourth ship in August 2020. The escalation shows Turkey’s low regard for its European reputation and the weakness of European foreign policy.

Turkey has been troubling in the last years and the primary defense institution on which Europe and its countries rely for the continent’s safety, NATO. In 2017 a controversy involving the US and Turkey over the purchase of a missile defense system had brought the latter to announce it would instead buy the Russian alternative, the S-400. The deal, perfectionated in 2019, called into question the long-standing relationship between Turkey and its western allies and invalidated the contract for the purchase of F-35 combat aircraft, which the S-400 system is designed to shoot down.

A values clash

Another element contributing to increased tensions is the opposite view over moral and religious values, as in the case of the clash with France in October 2020, after publishing the satiric cartoon by Charlie Hebdo. The illustration depicted Turkey’s president in underwear, lifting a woman’s dress bowing to theprophet. Erdogan reacted fiercely, framing the cartoon as an attack on Islam and the prophet and a lack of respect towards its values and beliefs. The clash degenerated in a backlash from the Islamic world towards the French and a boycott of French products. On his side, Macron defended the freedom of speech and satire as an intrinsic value of its people.


What can Europe improve?

The relationship between Turkey and the European Union is just one more proof of the controversial behavior of European foreign policy. Historically the EU has been one of the principal promoters of human rights and has been seen as a safe harbor in the international arena ever since. However, it has not acted accordingly in the last decades, making agreements with countries that do not respect the same Fundamental Rights championed. Recently, the migration pressure has pushed European countries to act outside of the international conventions, as in the case of Greece’s police firing tear gas on the refugees and in the case of Spain deploying the Army on Ceuta to push back indiscriminately the arrivals. These episodes have fractured Europe’s image as a sponsor for Human Rights and have damaged the credibility of the entire Institution.

Spanish armoured vehicles facing migrants at Ceuta border, 18 May 21

Since the 2014-2015 crisis took place, the answer of the European countries and institutions has been to delegate the responsibility to check and secure their borders to third countries such as Libya, Morocco, and Turkey, which end up with the key for Europe and incredibly advantageous leverage towards the continent. Migration policy’s externalization is the demonstration that the EU is often unable to deal with complicated problems that require complicated solutions and has put itself in a vulnerable position towards the same countries that it has been dealing with, despite being paramountly more rich and powerful than them. In particular, Erdogan is well aware of his powerful position and will not spare any occasion. As in the words of Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish politician: “Erdogan is a soccer player, and as a soccer player, he knows the best defense is an offense.”

This accords with the neighboring countries made sense right after the crisis had begun when there was the need for a fast and immediate solution that could patch the emergency. However, they have remained in place ever since becoming a medium-long solution and deadlocking the EU in a disadvantageous position. To solve the impasse, Europe should accept that migration is a complicated deal and cannot be stopped by building walls or paying illiberal leaders to build them. Instead, it should take back control of its migration policy and its borders and start thinking about a more medium-long term strategy that could involve a European Asylum Agency and a unified approach towards migration. The benefits of designing a new such policy would be meaningful: it would disarm the neighboring countries with the same weapons that the EU gave them, and it would restore the image of Europe as a safe harbor and a champion for Human Rights.