Call us

The future of EU-Türkiye relations amidst war in Europe and global disorder

Amanda Paul

Date: 03/05/2023
Against the backdrop of war in Europe and global turmoil, the EU needs a real strategy for relations with Ankara, irrespective of who wins the forthcoming elections.

On 14 May, Turks will go to the polls to elect a new President and Parliament. Probably the most consequential elections of 2023, they are a watershed moment for the future of Turkish democracy and the country's strategic direction at a time of global upheaval. With the global liberal order in meltdown, influential middle powers like Türkiye are increasingly crucial, including for security and stability in Europe and the wider region.

The elections, particularly the presidential vote, significantly impact Türkiye’s relations with its traditional Western allies, including the EU. After years of deteriorating relations, an opposition victory could lead to a reset of ties, subject to the EU demonstrating the necessary political will and foresight. While a new term for President Erdoğan would bring more challenges, Türkiye will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine. Therefore, the EU must adequately prepare for either outcome, developing a coherent strategy with clear objectives.

The demise of Türkiye-EU relations

While Türkiye is one of the EU’s most strategically important neighbours, relations have been in dire straits for years. This is partly due to Ankara backtracking on democracy and civil liberties, particularly following the 2016 coup attempt, and tensions over developments in Turkish foreign policy. Included were Ankara’s naval operations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as Ankara’s Syria policy and Cyprus. In 2018, the EU froze the accession negotiations, although they were already comatose.

The EU is also to blame for the crisis relations. The accession negotiations, which began in 2005, rapidly hit the wall over a failure to solve the decades-old Cyprus problem and the decision of some member states to block the opening of negotiating chapters for political reasons. While the 2016 EU-Türkiye migration deal rebooted ties, this was short-lived. Furthermore, the deal changed how the EU and Türkiye do business: short-term issues based on transactional cooperation replaced the previous institutionalised framework.

Consequently, Erdoğan pivoted away from the bloc (and the US) and embarked on a more autonomous and assertive foreign policy in its neighbourhood and elsewhere. For example, Erdoğan declined to join Western sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, he took the middle ground, striking a balance between being pro-Ukraine (condemning Russia’s invasion, supporting Kyiv’s territorial integrity and supplying arms) but not anti-Russia. This provided an opportunity for Türkiye to play a central role in negotiating the Black Sea grain deal as well as mediating in the early days of the war when a peace deal seemed within reach. It is an approach which reflects Erdoğan’s goal to make Türkiye great as a standalone power, not simply a nation that relies on the West and always sides with it.  

While Türkiye’s increased regional, and even global weight, makes Ankara an essential interlocutor for the EU, including on regional security and conflict resolution issues, cooperation has been limited due to the accumulated problems. No summits, High-Level Dialogues on Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), energy, economy and transport have taken place since November 2018. This is short-sighted. Not only is Türkiye a key and often influential stakeholder in developments in its neighbourhood, it also frequently has a better understanding of the regional dynamic in its neighbourhood than the EU.

The elections are a fork in the road for the future strategic direction of the country and its place in a new multipolar world, as well as the future of Türkiye-EU relations and the EU’s readiness to effectively reengage with Ankara.

A watershed moment for the opposition

President Erdoğan is facing his stiffest challenge yet. With support for Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) already in decline due to the economic and cost of living crisis, it took a further blow following the devastating 6 February earthquakes, which killed tens of thousands of people and left over a million homeless - significantly increasing the likelihood of an opposition victory. Still, Erdoğan should not be underestimated. He is a gifted orator and campaigner and has almost total control of the media and state institutions.

Compared to the past, the opposition has upped their game. For them, the election is a battle not only for the future of Turkish democracy and the country's strategic direction but also for the secular lifestyle of millions of Turks. Most of the opposition has unified in the ‘Nation Alliance’ bloc, backing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as a joint presidential candidate. Kılıçdaroğlu also has the unofficial backing of Türkiye's pro-Kurdish HDP party.

In addition to returning Türkiye to a parliamentary system of governance, the opposition prioritises restoring trust with the West, particularly by rebooting ties with Washington, kickstarting Ankara’s EU accession process, and using diplomacy rather than hard power to resolve disputes.

If neither candidate fails to secure more than half the presidential ballots on 14 May, a run-off will occur two weeks later. There are concerns that Muharrem Ince, Homeland Party's leader, could split the opposition vote. Whichever party wins the parliamentary vote will have a psychological advantage.

A fresh start or more of the same?

An opposition victory should open a new page in EU-Türkiye relations, and the EU should not squander this opportunity. In the current geopolitical context, it would be foolish and detrimental to European security and stability to allow relations to remain bogged down in bilateral disputes. It would also contradict the EU’s goal of becoming a more effective geopolitical actor.

Encouraging statements and a high-level visit to Ankara should be the first step. Thereafter, subject to Türkiye’s new leadership taking steps to release political prisoners and other measures to restore democracy, the EU should rapidly normalise relations. Included should be resuming dialogues at all levels and immediately convening an EU-Türkiye Summit.

While the opposition wants to revitalise accession talks, this may be difficult. Despite the EU offering candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova and the prospect to Georgia, the EU’s current enlargement policy is not fit for purpose. Further widening cannot happen without deepening and will require treaty change, which is not around the corner. Furthermore, while Türkiye is a candidate country and has already opened 16 negotiating chapters, nowadays, it is far from meeting the Copenhagen political criteria, which needs rectifying.

While the EU should reiterate its commitment to Turkish membership, starting the negotiations for the upgrade of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union and visa liberalisation should be prioritised. Ankara must address the existing Customs Union-related trade frictions with the EU to facilitate the process. A change of language vis-à-vis the decades-old Cyprus problem may also be necessary. Since the collapse of the UN-led talks at Crans Montana in 2017 for a bizonal, bicommunal federation solution, Erdoğan has called for a two-state solution. While the opposition has signalled a readiness to return to the UN-backed process, the EU should make clear to the Greek Cypriots that they should not create unnecessary obstacles to improving ties with Ankara.

Deepening cooperation in areas related to security should also be prioritised. As a NATO member, Türkiye has played a key role in the Western Balkans and elsewhere. It is also a major actor in the Black Sea and has had economic, political and, in some cases, security ties with the Eastern neighbourhood and the South Caucasus countries. Beyond re-establishing the High-Level CSDP Dialogues, opening the way for Türkiye to be part of the EU’s Military Mobility PESCO project, something Ankara requested in May 2021 should happen. Türkiye also remains interested in EU defence initiatives, including the European Defence Agency and Fund (EDA/EDF).

Still, the EU needs to accept that the days when Türkiye’s foreign policy was almost fully aligned with its own are gone. While there will be agreement on many issues, on some points, there will not, particularly those related to Türkiye’s national security, including Syria, with the opposition favouring normalising ties with President Assad. Due to Türkiye’s heavy dependence on Russia, the opposition will not join Western sanctions, and continuing to balance between Moscow and Kyiv will not help Moscow circumvent sanctions. This approach may further open the way for Türkiye to mediate in future peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, something no EU member state or the US can do.

If Erdoğan stays in power, relations will remain strained, more so if the legitimacy of the election results is called into question. While progress in many areas will prove impossible, the EU must find a modus vivendi to engage with Erdoğan on issues of common strategic interest. Enhancing cooperation issues related to European security and stability should be prioritised.

The world is rapidly shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar reality. The battle over Europe’s future and the emerging new security architecture will have major implications for the EU and the broader region. As a major security and economic actor, Türkiye will have a vital role in the future of European security and stability. Thus, irrespective of who wins the elections, the EU must develop a clear strategy for relations with Ankara and put an end to years of muddling through.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten