Turkey’s vacillation weakening its position

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week paid a one-day visit to Brussels to talk to top officials from the EU and NATO. He spoke to Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

The visit came soon after Turkey decided it would no longer stop refugees from crossing into Europe, so refugee-related issues were an important agenda item. 

Turkey has reportedly spent more than $45 billion on Syrian refugees alone. Erdogan raised this issue with the EU officials and reminded them of the outstanding money the bloc owes to Turkey in exchange for it stemming the flow of refugees into Europe. Out of the €6 billion ($6.6 billion) promised in 2016, only €4.7 billion has so far been committed and €3.2 billion effectively paid. So there is a €1.3 billion balance outstanding. 

He also asked them to raise additional funds for the Idlib refugees because this is a new phenomenon and it has to be dealt with as a separate issue. The EU acknowledged the €1.3 billion shortfall, but did not respond positively to the new demand. 

Erdogan used the refugee issue as an overture for his talks with the EU officials because he knew they would not turn a deaf ear to what he had to say on this subject. Then he turned to other EU-related subjects, namely the revitalization of Turkey’s accession process, visa facilitation for Turkish citizens, and the updating of Turkey’s customs union agreement with the bloc. 

On the revitalization of the accession process, the EU leaders responded with as plain words as possible that Turkey’s image needed serious improvement and that major reforms were needed in the fields of fundamental rights and freedoms, and the independence of the judiciary. This was a good opportunity for Erdogan to hear these shortcomings from the horse’s mouth. 

On visa facilitation, Turkey was expected to fulfill 72 criteria. It has fulfilled 66 but has problems with the remaining six. They include the definition of terror in the Turkish penal code; agreement on the protection of personal data; cooperation on penal and legal matters; fighting corruption; and an agreement for the readmission to Turkey of refugees that do not qualify to enter EU countries. The most important among these is the definition of terror in the Turkish penal code. EU law says that the nonviolent expression of opinion cannot be considered as a punishable act, while Turkish legislation considers such expressions acts of terror. 

The issue of the updating of Turkey’s customs union agreement with the EU had already been settled in 2016 and the EU had agreed to take action, but it is still being kept on the shelf with no reasonable explanation. The postponement of the updating of this agreement is causing economic loss to Turkey because the exported goods of third countries with which the EU has signed a customs union agreement can enter the Turkish market without customs duty, while Turkey has to pay when it exports goods to the same third countries. 

The issues that Erdogan raised in Brussels indicate that Turkey has now woken up to rediscovering the merits of the EU accession process. Until recently, Turkey was in the mood of saying: “If you don’t want Turkey to become an EU member, tell us, so that we can go our own way.” This time, Turkey avoided such a narrative.

Erdogan used the refugee issue as an overture for his talks with the EU officials because he knew they would not turn a deaf ear to what he had to say on this subject.

Yasar Yakis

Erdogan’s visit to Brussels also came soon after his trip to Moscow, where he could not obtain what he expected. Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated that he would continue his fight against terrorist groups in Idlib, which will restrain Turkey’s efforts to protect the fighters that it considers to be moderate. 

With this visit to Brussels, Turkey now seems to have turned back to the Euro-Atlantic community that it has unnecessarily antagonized for more than a decade. The vacillating policy between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community may weaken Turkey’s hand with both camps, so it has to develop a policy that will give confidence to both. It is only at that time that Turkey may strengthen its position on both fronts. 

Turkey wants to get NATO support and protection in the military operations it plans to carry out in Idlib. NATO has refrained from supporting Turkey within Syrian territory, but said it could provide intelligence and missiles fired from Turkey. To what extent such an attitude would be compatible with Turkey’s cooperation with Russia remains a difficult question.


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