When dealing with Turkey in recent years, puzzled European governments have often oscillated between countering Ankara’s animosity and showing openness to dialogue.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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It is now beyond doubt that the trajectory chosen by Turkey’s leaders is going against the interests and values of the EU in a host of different ways.

Rule of law is being systematically destroyed. An absurd economic policy is weakening a large partner country and jeopardizing the stock of European investment. Turkey’s relations with its neighbors have sharply deteriorated, and the EU’s calls for dialogue remain unheeded.

The path to a comprehensive agreement on Cyprus has been closed by the Turkish president, who has said he favors a two-state solution for the island, which has been divided since 1974.

Ankara’s defense choices have played in favor of Russia, not NATO. Foreign policy has been militarized and become unpredictable. The intervention in Libya has created risks for European interests and could destabilize countries in the Sahel. Refugees have been weaponized, as seen in February 2020 at the land border with Greece.

In addition, the permanent narrative against a supposedly Islamophobic Europe is utterly ambiguous and seen more as a political instrument than anything akin to religious concerns. For example, Turkey long waged a massive campaign against Beijing’s repression of Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Western China, only to cancel it entirely when a few billion dollars of Chinese help was at stake.

European leaders have now woken up. Multiple attempts to assuage the Turkish president have failed—he has met all openings with silence or provocation, especially the European Council’s offer on October 1.

Many in Europe’s political circles now consider that a permanently adverse posture is likely in the run-up to the 2023 Turkish presidential and legislative elections (if they take place) and possibly beyond that pivotal year. Part of the animosity toward Europe can be explained by domestic political and economic hurdles and by the ruling alliance between the Justice and Development Party and the Nationalist Movement Party.

But another strong motive is Turkey’s willingness to distance itself from the West when its national interests are felt to be at stake.

This has recently resulted in multiple serious contradictions: deploying and testing Russian S-400 missiles; challenging maritime boundaries with Greece; blocking NATO’s policy to protect Poland and the Baltic states; hampering NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian, which enforces the arms embargo against all warring parties in Libya.

In practice—and despite Turkey’s vocal claims to the contrary—this means selectively shedding the commitment to the North Atlantic alliance.

Against its structural proclivity toward dialogue, the European Council cannot use procrastination and benevolence with Ankara anymore. A thorough clarification of the European Union’s policy with Turkey is necessary on several fronts—military, foreign affairs, economy, refugees, rule of law—based on an assessment of threats to EU interests and values.

Charting a course of action is no easy matter, not just because of different preferences between European governments, but primarily because of Ankara’s choice to fuel permanent tension.

There is little doubt that some EU governments will continue to pursue or support a benevolent approach toward Turkey, be it for reasons of principle, sheer economic interest, or autocratic affinity.

Others will prefer a more muscular approach. Ankara has so far exerted its best efforts to divide European governments and used an extraordinarily aggressive tone with France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Notwithstanding the difficulty, an EU menu of action should aim to cover at least the following seven domains:

  • Maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean: Sponsor direct talks between Ankara and Athens, issuing a precise invitation to an initial meeting.
  • Economy: Issue an invitation for consultations on economic policy and advocate a reversal of the interest rate policy; engage in formal consultations on Ankara’s trade policy to discuss, among other, the illegal call to boycott French goods, alignment on EU external tariff, and certificates of origin; engage in a dialogue with the EU business sector on the risks of current economic policies in Turkey.
  • Refugees: Put a clear, multiyear offer to support Syrian refugees in Turkey on the table.
  • Foreign affairs: Extend concrete support to the UN-led peace process in Libya and work with Moscow and Washington on stopping the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorny Karabakh.
  • Military: Given Ankara’s obstruction of NATO and the use of Turkish military assets against EU interests, reconsider EU exports of dual-use industrial goods as well as engineering and research projects.
  • Rule of law: More actively denounce the systematic dismantling of the rule of law in Turkey and stress its negative effect on European investment; issue sanctions against the individuals that most actively contribute to eroding the rule of law; step up European support for democracy and human rights projects.
  • Methods: Firmly condemn insults and issue sanctions against the individuals that are the most involved in hate speech; set up anti-disinformation campaigns; counter the Islamophobia narrative.

Turkey is free to chart an entirely new course for itself, but EU leaders have a duty to defend their values and interests.

Turning a blind eye or playing down what Turkey’s leadership is doing to its country and to its policies toward the EU and NATO creates a strategic risk for European governments. Leniency is not an option anymore.