Relations between Turkey and the European Union – already fraught – have deteriorated swiftly over the last few months. In June, the refusal of Turkish officials to allow German parliamentarians to visit their troops stationed at the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey, who are part of the fight against ISIS, encouraged Berlin to pull its forces surveillance aircraft out of the country and move them to Jordan.
In a resolution passed last week, the European Parliament voted to suspend Turkey’s accession talks with the EU, citing Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And, according to reporting from Reuters, Germany is now asking the European Commission to pause its negotiations with Ankara on the EU-Turkey Customs Union.
Squabbles between the European Union and Turkey, which has been negotiating accession to the bloc since 1999, are not new. However, the escalation in rhetorical attacks between Turkey and European powers – in March Erdogan called the Netherlands “the capital of fascism” and compared German politicians to Nazis – has been unique. That war of words now threatens to undermine the NATO alliance, especially as Turkey pursues the $2.5 billion preliminary agreement it signed with Russia to buy S-400 SAM air defense systems.
What does this mean for the U.S. and the Trump Administration, which relies heavily on Turkey for support against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
Turkish ties to several EU countries have been damaged this year, but its relations with Germany have seen the sharpest decline. Those relations also offer the clearest look at the effects of a serious deterioration of Turkey’s place in both NATO and the EU accession process. On the NATO side, Germany’s decision to move its troops from Incirlik air base is significant, but it is a proposed redirection of AWACS surveillance planes from the Konya air base in central Turkey that would be most damaging to NATO unity. As Karl-Heinz Kamp, Director of the German Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, notes, the AWACS fleet’s stationing in Turkey “was not on the basis of a bilateral agreement with the country, it is part of a NATO agreement.”
Not only does the anti-ISIS coalition lose the capability of the AWACS while they are in transit, the move also forms a diplomatic rift within NATO. This is why NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is currently attempting to mediate negotiations between the two allies. According to Kamp, “Stoltenberg is in a very tricky situation” where, faced with multiple crises within NATO, “he is trying to avoid escalation in any of these conflict areas.”
On the EU side of the equation, it is the perceived authoritarian and anti-European bent of the Erdogan government that is driving the diplomatic crisis, and the failed military coup against Erdogan in July of last year marks the turning point from tense relations into a burgeoning crisis. Since then, the Erdogan government has purged of over 100,000 military officers, civil servants, journalists, and academics suspected of involvement in the putsch. They also succeeded in winning a “Yes” vote in the country’s constitutional referendum that will grant sweeping new powers to President Erdogan when enacted.
European leaders have consistently expressed worry at what they see as the consolidation of powers in Erdogan’s hands and the multiple alleged human rights abuses committed by the Turkish government during the purge. In response, Erdogan and his allies deny any anti-democratic practices, claim the purge has been necessary to combat pro-coup elements in the country, and maintain that they do not need the EU accession process and that threats to end it will not influence their policy.
Many analysts believed that the severity of these exchanges would die off after Erdogan won the decision he wanted in the referendum. Secure in his power at home, the theory was that he would seek to repair his country’s ties with Europe. However, says Director of the Turkish Research Project at the Washington Institute and author of The New Sultan, Soner Cagaptay, this outcome no longer looks likely.
This is partially due to a new series of provocations – including the arrest of ten Amnesty International human rights workers by Turkish authorities this July. But, says Cagaptay, “this runs much deeper.” According to him, “what we saw before the Turkish constitutional referendum in April… were not episodic glitches, they actually represented the culmination of… [an “Erdoganist”] political ideology that is driven by a very deep sense of anti-European anti-western sentiment.” This means that crises like this will continue to crop up between Turkey and Europe.
Nevertheless, Turkish economic growth is heavily dependent on foreign direct investment and tourism, and the bulk of this outside money is European. For this reason, despite the public saber rattling and chest-beating against Europe, Erdogan’s government is simultaneously pursuing talks to upgrade its critical customs union with the EU. Germany is now threatening that economic lifeline by asking the European Commission to halt those talks with Ankara but Erdogan still has a trump card to play here: refugees. “Basically,” says Cagaptay, “if Erdogan wants, all three million [refugees] could be in Germany tomorrow, and the rest of Europe in three months.”
This kind of exchange between economic support and curbing refugee flows may ease the current crisis with the EU, but it is hardly permanent. This presents a serious problem for the United States, especially where current and new crises intersect with NATO unity. Interestingly, questions about Turkey’s place in NATO and relations with the European Union come at the same moment as similar questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s commitment to NATO and ties to key leaders in western Europe.
However, for the moment at least, the U.S. Administration needs some semblance of unity between Turkey and its European NATO allies. The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq relies on Turkish bases, particularly the air base at Incirlik, to provide timely support to its forces and allies on the ground. Any threat to that support – whether it comes from intra-NATO disputes or Turkish anger at U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the rise of anti-western political narratives – could seriously degrade U.S. efforts to fight the terror group. As Stoltenberg attempts to negotiate a deal between Turkey and Germany, the Trump Administration should consider lending its voice to the mix.