US watches as Turkey loses its EU anchor

US watches as Turkey loses its EU anchor

Advocating Turkey’s membership of the European Union used to be a strategic vision of all past U.S. administrations - both Democratic and Republican – especially since late 1980s. The U.S. pushed the view that Turkey’s loyalty to the West during the Cold War needed to be rewarded with deeper European integration, taking on board some Atlanticists in high places in Europe in promoting this idea. 

Today, if you ask the State Department, it would probably give you some nice sounding geostrategic rhetoric, prompting you to think that the old vision is still solid. But it remains a mystery whether that reflects President Donald Trump’s personal view, as the State Department seems to have been sidelined in managing key issues at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Does Trump truly care about keeping Turkey anchored to the West? Nobody really knows.

Equally, the rest of the world did not know what to make of Trump calling the NATO “obsolete” on the campaign trail last year. We learned this week from the president himself that he “did not in fact know much about NATO” back when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked about his views on the organization. “I complained about that a long time ago and it then made a change and now fights terrorism. It is no longer obsolete,” Trump said. 

This could be an example mirroring how he may be viewing Turkey’s further drift away from European political values. Many in Washington’s political circles believe that Trump’s eagerness to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his narrow referendum victory on April 16, despite the State Department’s more hesitant reaction, was related to a similar ignorance. 

Following the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) decision to put Turkey under “monitoring” because of human rights and rule of law violations, lawmakers at the European Parliament are getting ready to press EU leaders for a formal suspension of accession negotiations. There are strong signals that the June summit in Brussels could irreversibly break already battered ties between Ankara and Brussels.
Despite being deeply unpopular across Europe because of the invasion of Iraq, former U.S. President George W. Bush called the shots when his European counterparts were dragging their feet on opening accession talks with Turkey on Dec. 17, 2004. His intervention was not necessarily welcomed by EU member states, but the Bush stood firmly behind the newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Today, in contrast, would it even be an issue for President Trump if European leaders reach a consensus to freeze talks with Ankara? And if he did intervene, would it even have any influence on European leaders who have been questioning Trump’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance? 

These days, especially after the April 16 referendum, all you hear from Turkey-watchers in Washington is talk of Turkey’s aggressive actions in Syria and Iraq, as well as the strong signals of its declining democracy. It is not only Trump’s White House that is not paying a huge amount of attention to the dramatic course of events within the framework of Turkey-Europe relations. American politicians or former diplomats who for more than a decade have been on Turkey’s side during numerous crises between Brussels and Ankara also now tend to agree with Brussels that Erdoğan’s Turkey must pay a price for recent events. 

So the latest crises with Europe, along with Turkish airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) targets in northern Syria, carry the potential to negatively impact Erdoğan’s upcoming visit to Washington.