In the aftermath of the 25-26 European Council Summit, the EU is clearly divided in its approach to Turkey. While some wish to see a more determined EU which supports its values and protects its Member States, others disagree with sanctions on Turkey and support a more welcoming plan with which to meet the state. However, an approach using exclusively soft power opens up the EU to risks that have the potential to be very costly.
During the 25-26 March European Council Summit, one of the main points on the agenda was the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. More extensively, the Summit focused on EU-Turkey relations. EU leaders recalled ‘the European Union’s strategic interest in a stable and secure environment in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the development of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey.’ Although some are arguing for more sanctions, many leaders are hoping for an exclusively positive agenda between the EU and Turkey.
Following the meeting on 25 March, the EU said that, provided Turkey maintains the current de-escalation and conditionalities laid out in previous conclusions of the European Council, the EU is ready to develop a positive agenda that will facilitate cooperation with Turkey in areas of common interest, including economic cooperation and migration. However, an exclusively positive agenda comes with risks at the cost of the EU.
Risk #1: The EU Undermines Its Own Legitimacy
A critical risk that comes with a positive EU-Turkey agenda is that it may undermine the EU as a legitimate player in the international arena. By adopting a positive agenda with Turkey, the EU runs the risk of appearing paradoxical.
The EU has recently imposed further sanctions on Russia over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, on Belarus over the violent suppression of the opposition, and on Myanmar following the military coup. However, the EU is reluctant to impose sanctions on Turkey which likewise has breached laws and core European values, including democracy, sovereignty, and human rights. In fact, the EU continues to discuss further funding and investment in Turkey in the years to come.
This engenders skepticism around the efficacy of the EU’s normative power and puts EU solidarity to the test. Sticking to a soft power approach despite Turkey’s flagrant violations of democracy, human rights and state sovereignty would make the EU look weak, undermining the values it claims to represent. In addition to risking its standing as a legitimate international actor, it is likely that an exclusively positive agenda will make the EU appear as though it lacks resolve, hence making it harder to maintain its leverage over issues that will arise in the future, such as on the new deal on migration.
Risk #2: The Return of Crisis in EU-Turkey Relations
A positive agreement with Turkey must come with a consistent return to the rule of law. Yet, a closer look at Turkey’s domestic politics and a series of democratic failures in Turkey reveals that a future crisis in EU-Turkey relations is very likely. Whether this comes in the form of a threat to migration flows into the EU, or unauthorized gas explorations that undermine the sovereignty of EU member states, and more extensively the breach of international law if it does not align with Turkey’s interests.
It is rather naïve to expect that a state whose President exercises full control over domestic politics and foreign policy – without allowing much room for domestic challenge from other parties – would simply abide by international law. Evident to that is Turkey’s illegal occupation of Cyprus. Although a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus Problem is key to successful EU-Turkey relations, Turkey’s objection to the EU’s participation in the resumption of negotiations with Cyprus clashes with Turkey’s alleged cooperation with the EU. This breach of international law and deterioration of human rights are very likely to continue. A key example of human rights abuses includes crude violations against women. More than eleven million women have faced sexual or domestic violence in Turkey. Significantly, Turkey recently withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty for the protection of women. This adds to the systematic failures to protect women’s rights and by extension human rights. The EU would do well to be cautious of Erdogan’s statements regarding his willingness to cooperate. The risk that comes with the EU’s soft power approach is that it would only be a partial and temporary success in managing Turkey. Future conflicts of interest in the EU-Turkey relations are therefore highly likely.
The adoption of a purely positive agenda with Turkey, and the complete disregard of discussion to add sanctions, poses potential threats to the EU’s legitimacy and stability. Firstly, it undermines the EU’s influence as a normative power. It works in favour of the autocratic power in Turkey, which flies in the face of fundamental European values. If the EU were to take this approach to the situation with Turkey, it would run the risk of appearing paradoxical and illegitimate on the international stage. Secondly, by adopting a completely soft approach, the EU runs the risk of gaining a temporary half-victory, i.e., smoothing over relations in the region at the cost of the values it claims to hold so dear.
Future clashes with Turkey that harm European interests are very likely to occur, given its current autocratic regime and the deterioration of democratic values and human rights domestically. This hints at the unlikelihood of Turkey’s ability to effectively abide by international law. With this positive agenda, it appears the EU wishes to avoid breaking economic ties or migration flows to the EU. However, even if it succeeds in the short term, another crisis surrounding EU-Turkey relations can be expected in the future. The softer the EU’s response, the more power hungry Turkey may become, feeding a vicious circle – potentially exacerbating tensions in migration flows and geopolitical challenges, or neglecting human rights, just to name a few.