Turkey’s foreign policy road is full of sharp bends

The victory of the far-right National Union party in the first round of the general elections in France, one of the leading countries of the European Union (EU), signaled that Europe has entered a new era in which nationalists and far-rightists are gaining strength.

Turkey, on the other hand, faces new challenges in its foreign policy due to the escalating tension on its border with Syria, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza in its neighborhood, and the turmoil in the US and European politics. The strong winds blowing on the international political scene could have serious consequences for Turkey, which is struggling with an economic crisis.

“EU and Turkey on the brink of a permanent rupture” At a time of far-right anxiety in Europe, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is being closely watched in terms of Turkey’s future foreign policy.

In his latest analysis, Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Turkey Director at the German Marshall Fund (GMF), warns that relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey have reached the edge of a cliff, that the risk of a “permanent rupture” is increasing and that “time is running out” to prevent it. “This rupture is neither in Europe’s nor Turkey’s interest,” Ünlühisarcıklı told DW Turkish. Pointing out that the EU has not even established a high-level political dialogue with Turkey since the 2019 council resolutions, Ünlühisarcıklı observed, “Ankara’s growing interest in platforms such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a manifestation of Turkey’s frustration with the EU.”

The GMF Director also reminded that with the latest European Council decision, the positive development in the EU’s relations with Turkey is conditional on a positive development in the Cyprus problem, “In other words, they are telling Turkey to ‘make a camel jump through hoops’. Since Turkey knows that it cannot do this, it is starting to look for alternatives.” In fact, neither the EU nor the Turkish government desire a rupture, but at this point it has become a real risk, Ünlühisarcıklı said, clarifying his concerns with the following assessment: “Membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was once a very eccentric idea, has become a mainstream idea in Turkey, and engagement with BRICS has become normal. First such things become normal, then they become public expectations. Before the S-400 purchase, it was said, “This is not rational, Turkey is flirting with Russia to lower the price of Patriot.” We said, “Rational or not, it will do it,” and it did. Now it is said that Turkey is playing the China card to unblock Europe. This may be true. But these processes gain their own dynamism, and even if this is not the government’s initial intention, the process can take you there.”

Can relations with the EU, where the far right is growing stronger, improve?

But how realistic is it to expect an EU where the far right and nationalism are on the rise to improve its relations with Turkey? Ünlühisarcıklı says that steps can be taken in this direction, albeit within a limited framework, and points out that Hungary, under the right-wing populist Viktor Orban’s premiership, has a positive approach to Turkey.

“Turkey’s EU adventure may face additional obstacles” Alper Coşkun, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a respected think tank, believes it would be a strategic mistake for the EU to ignore Turkey.

Coşkun, a retired ambassador, is director of Carnegie’s Turkey and the World Project. Coşkun says that the growing far-right in Europe could have a further negative impact on EU-Turkey relations, which have deteriorated in recent years, but adds, “The real political realities are clear. Political changes in the EU that contradict its demographic and economic realities are not going to change the importance of an actor like Turkey for the European continent in all respects. However, it may make it more difficult to find a reasonable compromise and may create additional obstacles in Turkey’s EU journey.” European capitals are closely watching the events in Kayseri, which started with the alleged molestation of a child by a Syrian national in Kayseri and spread to other cities in Turkey, and the anti-Turkey protests in northern Syria. There are fears that violent anti-immigrant sentiment could lead to asylum-seekers who no longer feel safe to leave Turkey, and that this could lead to a new influx of migrants to Europe.

Most political observers and security experts see the developments as a sign that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Syria policy is bankrupt. They point out that Turkey is now facing the consequences of its gross political mistakes by taking sides in the Syrian civil war. Alper Coşkun says, “Turkey’s blocking the establishment of a permanent PKK-controlled line was the right step. However, boastful and inflating statements such as ‘we spent 50 billion dollars’ and ‘our land is open to everyone, we are not like others’ were made. What is happening today shows that the medium and long-term effects of these policies have not been taken into account. If I remember correctly, Mr. Davutoğlu’s assumptions were based on the assumption that ‘50,000 or 100,000 people would come’. However, the numbers we are facing now are obvious.”

Criticizing the EU for inconsistency

EU-Turkey relations are now largely reduced to a single issue, the prevention of migration to Europe. Alper Coşkun describes this approach of the EU as unsustainable and wrong. “The EU’s positioning of Turkey as a potential pool of illegal migrants in its own mind is a very myopic, very wrong approach. It is very inconsistent to turn to Turkey and say ‘Don’t send them to Turkey’ and then to assume that the effects of this pressure on Turkey will not exist and not to exhibit a reflex of solidarity with Turkey.” Coşkun criticized the EU policies and said, “This attitude is extremely inconsistent, especially for a structure like the EU that acts on concepts such as principles, values and consistency, constantly criticizes Turkey through these concepts, and even puts forward these concepts as an obstacle to the development of Turkey’s relations with the EU.”

Emphasizing that Turkey cannot maintain such a role forever, Alper Coşkun said, “When there is a movement in Syria, will Turkey keep everything within its own structure? It is a great injustice to expect everything from Turkey. If responsible politics is to be practiced, then the EU will have to turn towards permanent solutions together with Turkey.”

“We should not be thrown everywhere with impulsive excitement”

Meanwhile, the global order is being shaken. The presidential elections to be held in the US in November are considered an important turning point. The geopolitical and geoeconomic competition between the US and China is expected to intensify in the coming period. It remains to be seen whether the US will continue to play its role in supporting security in Europe. With a new wave of enlargement, the EU is seeking to adapt to the changing global political climate and lay the foundations for a new security architecture on the European continent. Although its full membership is no longer on the agenda, the EU does not want to lose Turkey completely, but it is not taking steps to avoid losing it. Turkey, on the other hand, has the profile of a floundering country, swinging from one side to the other. Alper Coşkun, a foreign policy expert, says, “We should not be thrown everywhere with impulsive excitement that is not based on strategic thinking.”

Pointing out that Turkey is a country that is strongly integrated with the West in terms of its trade and human interaction, technology, innovation and access to financial resources, Coşkun concludes his assessment as follows: “Of course there is potential in China, of course it is possible to talk about the rising East, Asia, Africa. It would be more appropriate for Turkey to turn towards new pursuits in other lanes by preserving and keeping its basic backbone strong, that is, by keeping its relations with Europe, the EU, the US and the West strong.

The mistake we are making is that we are giving the impression that we are giving up everything we have done so far and are in the excitement of a brand new quest. As a NATO member and a candidate for the EU, Turkey’s turning to third world rhetoric such as ‘the West is collapsing, the East is rising’, ‘the West has no future, the alternative is elsewhere’ not only destroys the meaning of what you say in NATO, but also renders the rhetoric that we hear on every occasion, ‘full membership to the EU is our priority’, meaningless. This time, when you turn to the EU and say ‘Look, we need to solve this migration issue together’ or ‘You will improve Europe’s defense, but not without Turkey’, you don’t get the results you want. With this attitude, which undermines Turkey’s credibility, we have weakened our own hand.”

DWTürkçe/ Değer Akal