Unhealthy US-EU dual-track approach on Turkey
A round of hectic, Brussels-centered diplomacy this past week has revealed a dual-track approach from both the United States and European Union on ties with Turkey, a country with whom they have major differences on many regional issues.
The pillars of the bloc’s dual-track policy were outlined in a comprehensive report by High Representative Josep Borrell at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council on March 22. The report recommends that the union deepen the present momentum as a result of the de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean and encourage closer ties with Turkey by intensifying cooperation in a number of possible areas.
It also calls on the EU to take punitive measures against Turkey in the event it takes “unilateral and provocative actions” in the Mediterranean in violation of international law and EU member states’ interests. The report urges “economic and political consequences” should Turkey break the ongoing moratorium.
Borrell’s report was reflected to an extent in the EU Council resolutions that were released late on March 25. The bloc will wait another three months to be convinced that the current calm is genuine and sustained before launching a formal mandate to the commission to start negotiations with Turkey to modernize the customs union. Although the resolution has reiterated the sense of this dual-track approach on Turkey, it did not spell what measures it could impose if things go sideways in the coming period.
In addition to the customs union, EU leaders also invited the commission to work on a proposal to provide continued financial assistance to the Syrian refugees being hosted by Turkey.
The United States’ new administration under President Joe Biden is also developing a similar strategy on ties with Turkey. The hints of this policy were spotted during Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s intensified meetings with both his Turkish and European counterparts in Brussels last week.
Blinken and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held their first in-person meeting on the sidelines of the NATO foreign ministerial on March 24. Çavuşoğlu said he agreed with his counterpart to hold a more comprehensive meeting either in Turkey or in the United States in line with both sides’ willingness to keep the dialogue channels open so that they can better address their differences of opinion on a number of contentious issues.
In an interview with Euronews, Blinken summarized Washington’s take on ties with Turkey. “It’s no secret that we have a real difference with Turkey on [the S-400s], something that I expressed directly to my Turkish counterpart when I saw him, and other allies have done the same. It’s also true that Turkey is a longstanding and very valuable ally that works together with us on very important objectives, including counterterrorism, including dealing with Syria, and in other areas. So I think we have an interest in continuing to work closely with Turkey without, at the same time, ignoring our differences. So we engage them directly. We have very frank and clear and open conversations, and I hope Turkey will take some action to deal with the problems that, for example, the S-400s pose for the alliance,” he said.
The United States will, on the one hand, continue to engage with Turkey in many conflict theaters such as Libya, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan while, at the same time, trying to dissuade its ally from negotiating any sort of military or strategic equipment from Russia, let alone purchase a second batch of S-400s, and from actively using the Russian system.
As the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, put it in a meeting with Turkish journalists, any such action by the Turkish government will trigger a new round of sanctions with more bite than previous ones. In the broader picture, one can see the coordination between the United States and the European Union in developing this dual-track model on ties with Turkey. It has emerged that Washington and Brussels were in contact to develop a coherent long-term approach on ties with Ankara as they share many of the same problems with the latter.
From the Turkish perspective, it’s of course not ideal to be treated with an “it’s either good ties or sanctions” approach. Turkey has legitimate rights in the eastern Mediterranean and has a role in defending the rights of the Turkish Cypriots against the maximalist policies driven by Greece and Greek Cyprus. Under the current formulation, Turkey’s attempt to claim these rights will be seen as a violation of international law and therefore sanctionable.
Turkey’s recent recalibration of its foreign policy should first aim to fix this approach for the good sake of Turkey’s rights as well as for a healthy allied relationship with its U.S. and European partners. This “cooperation or sanctions” relationship is unhealthy and not sustainable.