Why the EU and Turkey need to co-ordinate their foreign policies

Why the EU and Turkey need to co-ordinate their foreign policies

Opinion piece (Carnegie)
Katinka Barysch
31 August 2011

The idea of an EU-Turkey foreign policy dialogue has been catching on in European and Turkish policy circles over the last couple of years. The reason is two-fold: the growing risk that Turkey’s EU accession process will break down, and Turkey’s rising status as a regional power and independent international player. The events of the Arab Spring have only magnified these rationales, illustrating both the potential rewards of co-operation as well as the consequences of failing to achieve it.

As a country negotiating for accession to the EU, Turkey is expected to align its laws and policies with the group. On foreign policy, this means signing on to the decisions the European Union makes under its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Turkey has indeed aligned itself with the vast majority of CFSP decisions since it began the accession process (although the proportion has been declining as of late). It’s a stretch, however, to call this harmonisation process “co-operation”; in essence, Europe merely asks Turkey and other prospective members to support decisions it has already made. Furthermore, this alignment has come on issues like elections in Albania or the situation in the Congo—that is, issues that are not fundamental for Turkish foreign policy or for EU-Turkey relations. On issues of greater consequence to Turkey, the story is much different.

Cyprus is one of the biggest obstacles to progress in EU-Turkey accession negotiations. Cyprus is blocking negotiations with Turkey on the CFSP, so there have been no official talks between Brussels and Ankara on the alignment process. Before the Lisbon treaty, Turkey’s foreign minister would typically discuss foreign policy issues with a “troika” of EU officials a few times per year; now there are regular and, by all accounts, constructive discussions between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. However, a growing number of policymakers and experts doubt that even this improved dialogue is sufficient. Ironically, the fact that Turkey is an EU candidate country is complicating cooperation in cases where it would be mutually beneficial. The problem is that accession talks have hit a roadblock: Of the 33 chapters in the process, negotiations on 13 have been opened, 17 are blocked, and Turkey apparently does not see any point in taking the difficult steps needed to open up the remaining three. Unless there is progress toward a Cyprus settlement and France elects a pro-Turkish President (both of which are unlikely), talks on the remaining three chapters would only serve to delay the point at which the EU and Turkey run out of things to negotiate.

With this main framework for relations blocked, the European Union and Turkey urgently need to find other channels for interaction. From energy security to neighborhood policy, the two sides cannot afford to work at cross-purposes.

In part, the difficulties in developing Turkey-EU co-operation stem from the fact that Turkey is different from other accession countries such as Slovenia or Iceland. The European Union has more experience dealing with these kinds of countries, which have limited regional, let alone global, reach and seek the strength in numbers that comes from the CFSP. Turkey, in contrast, sees itself as a regional power and an increasingly independent global player. It is proud of its many links to neighboring countries and its growing soft-power clout. Indeed Turkey likes to portray itself as an equal partner of the European Union rather than merely a bit player among the many EU states. This is the general shape of the problem.

There are also several specific obstacles to co-operation - as well as reasons for thinking that these obstacles have diminished over the past year. First, Turkey once feared that a foreign policy dialogue or any other co-operation outside the accession framework could set it on a path toward mere “privileged partnership,” a reduced alternative to full EU membership. However, both sides apparently now admit that accession talks have stalled, making them more interested in developing a relationship outside this process. Second, few Turks respect EU foreign policy, especially after the onset of the euro crisis and following the European bumbling in North Africa. In areas of particular concern to Turkey - the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East—the feeling has been that the EU role is weak. However, there are signs that this attitude may be changing. Recently, Turks have begun to appreciate the limits of Ankara’s “zero problems” foreign policy, as well as its unilateral (or non-aligned) positions with respect to, for example, Iran’s nuclear weapons program and Israel. The Arab Spring is bringing turmoil right up to Turkish borders and is raising the specter of major realignments in the region (for instance, Iran, Egypt, sectarianism, and reinvigorated Kurdish separatism). Turkey’s “zero problems” policy had mainly relied on trade and personal contacts; security will once again have to become a big part of Ankara’s thinking. Thus having a reliable (if not always effective) partner in the European Union and NATO seems more appealing.

Third, while many Europeans are happy to acknowledge the fact that Turkey’s strengthening role represents an opportunity for Europe, just as many are concerned that its hyperactive foreign policy has yet to deliver any tangible benefits. More still cannot bring themselves to see Turkey as anything other than a demandeur, a country that handed in an EU membership application and should now content itself with following EU rules and policies. When Turkey suggested that it should be invited to EU summits to discuss strategic issues, some EU leaders countered that Ankara’s sluggish pace of reform had not “earned” Turkey a seat at the big table.

Fourth, the European Union has struggled to overcome internal bureaucratic divisions and inefficiencies. For example, before the Lisbon treaty the enlargement commissioner was officially in charge of the relationship with Turkey but had no competence to speak on foreign policy, and the foreign affairs commissioner was not to speak with candidate countries. Brussels has taken steps to bridge these divisions. The new European External Action Service is designed to integrate EU foreign and other policies including enlargement, neighborhood, energy, and aid. The new four-way meetings between Ashton, Davutoglu, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, and Turkish Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis are also a step in the right direction, but they happen only once a year. Initial efforts at operational foreign policy co-operation (for example, high-level diplomatic meetings on Bosnia) have not yielded much success so far. Moreover, Turkey is reluctant to give up the prestige that comes from meeting all 27 EU countries rather than selected EU officials. While the idea of Erdogan going to EU summits seems to be off the table for now, Davutoglu’s participation in parts of the informal “Gymnich” meetings of EU foreign ministers will go some way toward satisfying such demands.

Brussels began reformulating its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in 2010; the Arab Spring has added urgency to this process. Given Turkey’s strong links with many Mediterranean and East European countries, one wonders why the European Commission didn’t consult Turkey when it drew up the blueprint for the new ENP published on May 25. Officials in Brussels say that the new policy focuses more on promoting democracy, human rights and good governance, and that Turkey was simply “on a different page,” since it had no qualms about maintaining strong ties with the likes of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, until recently, Syria’s Bashar Assad and Muammar Qaddafi. The European Union has promised to use more conditionality in its efforts to foster political change in its neighborhood; most Turks still insist that they do not want to “preach” to their neighbours.

Both sides would gain immensely from co-ordinating their activities in the Middle East and North Africa. The European Union has valuable experience in institution-building and economic reform, as well as a not-insignificant aid budget. But Europe’s past support for autocratic regimes and slim prospects for delivering on its promises of free trade and more visas means that it lacks credibility. Turkey, meanwhile, is a credible actor in the region (its status as an imperfect democracy probably adds to its appeal). It also enjoys growing trade and personal ties, including ties with the Islamist movements that are now fighting for political representation. However, if Turkey acted unilaterally to help these movements, it would raise questions about what it was really supporting: democracy or Islamism.

The obstacles to effective EU-Turkey foreign policy cooperation remain formidable. Moreover, it is not a given that more dialogue will lead to closer alignment. As the Franco-British-led intervention in Libya has shown, the European Union itself is often divided within itself on foreign policy despite constant, multi-level consultation among its member-states.

There will be grave consequences, however, if the European Union and Turkey fail to overcome these obstacles and co-ordinate their foreign policies. The European Union is currently engaged in a competition with Russia over the former Soviet space. In some cases, such competition has given the countries in the common neighborhood more room to maneuver. More often it has forced them into difficult choices between EU-mandated reforms and Russia’s quest for control. If there was similar competition between the EU and Turkey over, for example, Azerbaijan or Egypt, these countries’ progress would be inhibited. Effective foreign policy dialogue will help both sides avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings, make Turkey feel valued, and help European foreign policy become more effective.

This dialogue should take place at various levels. The European Union should invite (on an ad hoc basis) the Turkish Prime Minister and President to EU summits devoted to foreign policy issues. Davutoglu’s attendance at “Gymnich” meetings should be complemented by regular consultations between high-ranking EU and Turkish diplomats and officials. Of course, since European foreign policy is still predominantly made in EU member states, Turkey will continue interacting with the various European capitals. However, both sides should be mindful of the fact that bilateral dealings can undermine the unity and strength of EU foreign policy if they are not complemented by EU-Turkish co-ordination.

Co-ordinating neighborhood policy is an even more complicated issue, but it is also a vitally important one. Neighborhood policy engages multiple issues and instruments, including trade, aid, institution-building, energy, infrastructure, and regulatory alignment. The European Union needs to show some imagination in drawing a variety of Turkish actors - including ministries, agencies, and NGOs—into the formulation and implementation of this policy.

There is one final benefit Turkey can gain by coordinating its foreign policy with Europe. Historically, the United States has taken Turkey for granted as a NATO ally and a booster for its foreign policy in the Middle East. Some experts even argue that Washington views its relationship with Turkey not for its own sake but merely as something which helps or hinders its policies on Iraq, Iran, Hamas, missile defense, Israel, and so forth. On some of these issues, Ankara hews closer to Brussels than it does to Washington. Therefore, EU-Turkey co-ordination could mitigate the fallout from U.S.-Turkey divergences. If Turkey is seen as working closely with the European Union, it cannot easily be accused of “turning its back on the West.”

While the European Union needs to make foreign policy co-ordination an integral part of its relationship with Turkey, the United States should also pay more attention to Turkish domestic politics. Washington can no longer rely on the EU accession process to guarantee the survival of democracy and personal freedoms in Turkey. More than just Turkish domestic policy is at stake here: Turkey’s increasing pluralism, the rise of its middle class, and economic liberalisation combine to make Turkey’s neighborhood policy possible in the first place. A less tolerant, more centralized Turkey might pursue foreign and security policies that harm Western interests.