European Affairs

Turkey Becomes the Indispensable Partner     Print Email

BrianBeary.new1As a bridge between East and West and gateway to a chaotic Middle East, the strategic importance of Turkey has never been greater. While Turkey’s government faces sustained criticism over its worsening human rights record, the rebukes are being drowned out by the more pressing security challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis and Islamic State (ISIS) control of parts of Iraq and Syria. A rapprochement is taking place between Turkey and the West, one motivated more by pragmatism than principle.

The pace of change in the relationship is remarkable. Just one year ago, on a visit to Washington, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, Volkan Bozkir, lamented how “if there is no interest, any relationship will come to an end.” Seismic events that have occurred since have reignited the flame of interest.

Refugee crisis spurs renewed interest

In particular, the sudden, chaotic arrival in Europe of more than a million refugees, primarily fleeing a war-ravaged Syria, has transformed the political landscape. As Europe struggles to respond to the crisis, the need for help from Turkey has been laid painfully bare.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s de facto leader in this crisis, was quick to grasp the imperative of getting Turkey on board. Her visit to Turkey last October sowed the seeds for a ‘new deal’ in EU-Turkey relations, which was unveiled at a summit in Brussels on November 29.

In return for agreeing to work closely with the EU to control borders and manage refugee flows, Turkey was offered three billion euros in aid. Turkey got another juicy carrot dangled: visa free travel for Turks who visit the EU from October 2016, providing Turkey makes progress in applying a 2013 ‘readmission agreement’ requiring it to take back immigrants who illegally enter the EU via Turkey.

As for the ‘holy grail’ of EU membership, a path Turkey began in 1959 when it first applied to join the bloc, the EU agreed to open negotiations on previously-untouched policy chapters. Both sides are aware, however, that full membership remains a distant and uncertain proposition.

Turkish popular support for EU membership has waxed and waned as the accession train has stopped and sputtered over the years. When asked the core question of whether they want Turkey to be part of the EU, most Turks usually respond yes. Support among EU nationals for Turkey joining is substantially weaker.

Meanwhile, momentum has been generated on a project dear to the Turkish business community: updating the 1995 EU-Turkey customs union agreement. The agreement gives Turkish businesses access to the EU single market in return for which, Turkey’s government has to follow the EU’s external trade policies.

But this customs union is in dire need of overhaul to take account of evolutions in global trade. Multilateral trade liberalization, the main show in town in the 1990s, has fallen out of fashion due to the deadlock of talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The EU, like many other trading blocs, has responded to sclerosis at the WTO by concluding a raft of bilateral free trade pacts.

Customs union revamp

Turkey’s customs union membership requires it to grant access to Turkish market to countries that the EU does free trade deals with without, however, gaining reciprocal access to the extra-EU markets. A further drawback is that Turkey gets no seat at the table when the EU negotiates these trade deals. Turkey is understandably keen to address these anomalies.

There is interest in the EU too for an update because some sectors of the Turkish economy, notably agriculture and public procurement, were excluded from the 1995 agreement due to protectionist concerns inside Turkey. EU exporters would be happy to see these carve-outs removed. The goal is to finalize a new deal by 2017.

The biggest bilateral deal that the EU is trying to conclude is with United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations were launched in the summer of 2013 and have reached midpoint, with round 12 taking place in Brussels from February 22-26. Earlier this month, White House press secretary Josh Earnest let slip during the daily briefing that President Barack Obama is leaving it up to his successor to wrap up the TTIP talks, meaning post-January 2017.

If and when TTIP is completed, Turkey would like the agreement to have a ‘docking mechanism’ that allows Turkey to become party to it. Turkey’s customs union with the EU is its biggest bargaining chip in this regard. Though EU and U.S. officials remain non-committal, trade officials have been sending out discreet signals that after a deal is done, Turkey’s demands can be addressed.

Turkish-EU trade, at $150 billion a year, dwarfs Turkish-U.S. trade, around $20 billion a year. In the early 2000s, the EU, Turkey and the U.S. put considerable effort into expanding trade with emerging markets. For the past couple of years, however, they seem to turning back to each other. For instance, 43.5 percent of Turkey’s exports went to the EU in 2014, up from 38.9 percent in 2012.

EU visa liberalization carrot

Turkey’s government sees EU visa liberalization as a great way to score political points at home. Scrapping short-term visa requirements would be a boon for hundreds of thousands of Turks who come to the EU each year. They would no longer have to pay 60 euros for a visa or the related hidden costs: intermediary agency fees and having to provide proof of health insurance and sufficient bank account holdings.

But a question-mark remains whether visa liberalization will happen on October 1 as scheduled, as that depends upon Turkey and the EU making progress together on migration management. The latest turn in Syria’s civil war - a mass exodus of refugees from the rebel stronghold city of Aleppo following Russian airstrikes on the city – is bad news for Turkey as it is stoking new EU-Turkey tensions.

Turks allege that the EU is schizophrenic, demanding both that Turkey tighten up borders with Syria to stop ISIS terrorists transiting and, at the same time, to open up them up in humanitarian crises. Turkey already is hosting more than two million Syrian refugees. Within the EU, meanwhile, many are wary of giving Turkey three billion euros in refugee aid, fearing it will be used for unrelated purposes.

An EU-Turkey summit will be held in Brussels on March 7, to take stock of progress made in implementing the plan of action put together late last year.

ISIS threat cements U.S. bond

Washington is re-cementing ties with Ankara too, although its primary motivator is different from the EU’s. With Turkey, a member of NATO since 1952, the U.S. sees Turkey as a strategically useful partner for fighting ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups.

Since ISIS seized swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, Turkey has shown some willingness to help. Turkey gave the U.S. permission to use its air base at Incirlik, situated near Syria, to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Cooperation further intensified since summer 2015 when ISIS started staging attacks on Turkish soil. These include bombings at a pro-Kurdish rally in Ankara in October which killed 102 people, and a suicide bombing outside Istanbul’s historic Blue Mosque in January, which killed 10 German tourists.

The ISIS attacks in Paris last November that killed 130 people instilled additional solidarity as some of the killers had transited Turkey en route to Syria to receive training by ISIS. The sudden collapse in Turkey’s relations with Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian military plane in November has also increased solidarity with the U.S.

Mutual distrust of Putin

Turkey is widely believed to have staged the plane downing to vent its anger at Russia over the latter’s decision to start airstrikes in Syria last September. With U.S.-Russian relations in deep freeze over Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the plane downing has put the U.S. and Turkey on the same page in both viewing Vladimir Putin’s Russia as more foe than friend.

But the rapprochement has left human rights advocates despondent. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s effective leader since 2002, continues to consolidate his grip on power by purging of the judiciary, shutting media outlets that criticize him and jailing journalists, and prosecuting officials on charges they are plotting a coup.

Rising popular resentment over Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian and religiously-conservative ways was a factor in his Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing its overall majority in the June 2015 parliamentary elections.

A crafty politician, Erdogan bounced back by exploiting the political uncertainty that ensued following failed coalition talks, coupled with growing public fears due to the ISIS attacks and renewed fighting between the PKK Kurdish militant group and the Turkish military. When fresh elections were held in November, Turks seemed to balk at changing their government at such a delicate moment, and Erdogan’s AKP regained a majority.

Now that Erdogan has consolidated power at home, the EU and U.S., whatever misgivings they may have, have resigned themselves to doing deals with his government on an increasingly diverse array of issues.

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