Foreign policy challenges after the elections
With the concurrent presidential and parliamentary elections of June 24, Turkey moved to a new system of government. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected as the first president under the new system, and the alliance formed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) obtained majority in parliament, though the AKP alone was not able to sustain its majority. While the new system officially went into force with the elections and the cabinet was announced on July 9, much of its structure and regulations as well as the way its different components would work with each other are not yet clear. Leaving aside domestic political implications of these developments, I would like to look at the international challenges waiting for the new government.
Unlike domestic politics, the general parameters of Turkey’s foreign policy should not be affected by the systemic changes much as Erdoğan had already assumed the leading role in foreign policy strategizing, and the re-appointment of Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu as foreign minister indicates that continuation, rather than change, will be the main characteristic of Turkish foreign policy in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, there are a number of sticky issues that the new government has to tackle. First of all, domestically, the working parameters of the relationship between the newly-created Security and Foreign Policy Council under the president and the Foreign Ministry have to be worked out. Moreover, as the Foreign Ministry is absorbing the EU Affairs Ministry in the new system, integration, and in some cases reintegration of the latter ministry’s personnel and portfolio in the former, would take some time and bureaucratic elbowing.
Apart from bureaucratic readjustment, the Foreign Ministry will continue to be occupied with the restoration of Turkish foreign policy to its former nuanced style from its wayward trials in its neighborhood under the guidance of former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. A more important aspect of this restoration will continue to be the re-framing of Turkey’s western connection.
Looking at its international connections, the future trajectory of Turkey’s relations with the U.S. would have the most impact on various dossiers at hand. The relationship, though some attempts to reframe it have become visible lately, is still beset with distrust on both sides. The anticipated delivery of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey will continue to poison the relationship as far as the U.S. Congress is concerned. Possible delays in the delivery of F-35 fighter jets and other military hardware to Turkey because of Congress’ intervention would plunge the relationship into depths that it would be difficult to foresee the way out. The continuation of U.S. cooperation with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ (PKK)-related Kurdish groups in Syria, fates of Fethullah Gülen in the U.S. and pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, possible U.S. Treasury fine on Halkbank, further U.S. sanctions on Iran and their possible effects on Turkey would tax the relationship, though the underlying problem is still to find a common strategic understanding regarding Turkey’s role in the world and in its neighborhood.
On the European side of its western connection, Turkey’s relations with the EU has been at a standstill for some time and there is not much possibility of improvement, even though Erdoğan had articulated his preference to improve the connection with the EU after the elections. Increasingly diverged approaches between Turkey and the EU on various issues, as well as the strong populist turn of European politics, pose serious obstacles to any improvement of the relationship. The immediate issues at hand are to negotiate an enhanced Customs Union, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, and continuation of cooperation regarding refugees and counterterrorism. With the closing down of the EU Affairs Ministry, nobody will be talking seriously about the membership negotiations any time soon.