ISTANBUL BLOG: Turkey looks to US as EU relations worsen

ISTANBUL BLOG: Turkey looks to US as EU relations worsen
Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the two countries have had a long list of problems.
By bne IntelliNews November 11, 2016

While most of the world sees potential dangers in Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential race, Ankara sees opportunities, particularly as Turkey’s relations with the EU only get steadily worse.

The European Commission this week blasted Turkey for serious backsliding on freedom, warning that the country is drifting away fast from Europe after the failed coup attempt. Ankara was unmoved and went on an unprecedented offensive, demonstrating its frustration with the troubled EU accession process that is going nowhere. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even challenged the bloc to end the membership talks, amid reports suggesting that the EU is considering freezing Turkey’s accession process. This was a very daring move by Ankara, leading to speculations that Turkey has finally decided to cut ties with the West and find new friends elsewhere.

Ankara has already buried the hatchet with Russia. Erdogan and Putin have met three times since last summer, discussing economic cooperation and trying to iron out their differences on Syria.

It is good for Ankara to have less problems with Moscow, which imposed a raft of sanctions after Turkey downed one of its bombers last year, hitting Turkey’s economy hard. But Russia is no substitute for Europe, economically or politically.

At a time when Turkey-EU relations have hit a new low, some opportunities may be arising from an unlikely place: the US. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the two countries have had a long list of problems: Syria and the role of the YPG Kurdish militia there, freedom in Turkey, and the highly contentious issue of the extradition of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government says masterminded the failed July 15 coup attempt.

Politicians in Turkey are cautiously optimistic that the election of Trump - in the words of Erdogan - may now mark the start of a new era.

Trump appears to be unusually sympathetic to Russia and to its leader Vladimir Putin. The president-elect also doesn’t seem to care much about what other countries do within their borders on human rights and press freedom, the issues that have been the source of tensions between Ankara and Brussels.

EU losing leverage

“Turkey’s candidacy hangs in the balance. They must accept that we apply higher standards... If they don't want to accept it, they have to face the consequences,” European Commissioner Johannes Hahn told Reuters on the day the European Commission released its highly critical progress report.

There was more to come. “The EU has to immediately freeze the accession talks until the Turkish government returns to the path of respect for the rule of law and human rights” said the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri.

Four or five years ago, such comments would have set alarm bells ringing in Ankara. But not anymore and it looks like the feelings are mutual.

They are talking about reviewing negotiations with Turkey. Go on. But don’t stop there, make a final decision,” Erdogan scoffed.

Erdogan’s EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik dismissed criticism in the report levelled by Brussels against Ankara. “It is far from being constructive and objective and it is not serving Turkey-EU relations,” he said.

It would not be a wise move to alienate Ankara when Europe needs Turkey to keep a large number of refugees at bay and in the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and Erdogan knows that.

“Turkey hosts 3mn refugees. Where would they put those refugees, if the negotiations end? That’s why they cannot dare to end the talks,” Erdogan said.

He is probably right. But still, while he was making his point, Erdogan also underlined the strong business ties. “Half of our exports go to Europe. We have economic relations that could not be ignored”.

Is the EU bluffing? It is unclear if Piri and Hahn represent a common position shared by the majority within the bloc. Turkey may find out when EU foreign ministers meet on November 14.

Turkey is tired of being kept in the waiting room for so long and is now calling on Europe to make up its mind. In 1959, Turkey made its application to join what was called back then the European Economic Community. Ankara applied for full membership in 1987. Formal accession negotiations started in 2005, but they have stalled over the past couple of years as the pace of reforms in Turkey has slowed.

It looks like Brussels is increasingly losing its leverage; the EU anchor is becoming a less effective tool in shaping Turkey’s policy orientation. The current situation is at an impasse and unsustainable and there must be a way out of this mess. Yet it is difficult to predict who blinks first in this high-stakes standoff.

Enters Trump

As tensions escalate between Ankara and Brussels, Turkey may now look beyond Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean, to find some comfort, while at the same time turning east to Russia for closer ties.

Erdogan had a phone conversation with Trump on November 9, expressing willingness to work closely with the new administration in Washington. They reportedly talked about improving bilateral relations and cooperation against terrorism.

Ankara also wasted no time in letting the new president know what it wants from him. “We congratulate Mr Trump. I am openly calling for the urgent extradition of Gulen,” Erdogan’s Primer Minister Binali said, only hours after the US elections results were confirmed.

Will the US hand the Islamic cleric over to Turkey? This looks more likely than before.

“Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support” is the title of an article penned by retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, Trump’s military adviser, and according to NBC News, he may be part of Trump’s cabinet as defence secretary or national security adviser. “We must begin with understanding that Turkey is vital to US interests,” Flynn said in the article he wrote for the Hill on November 8.

According to the former director of Defense Intelligence Agency, the Obama administration is keeping Erdogan’s government at arm’s length — an unwise policy that threatens the longstanding alliance. And here comes the words that the Turkish government wanted to hear from Washington: “The primary bone of contention between the US and Turkey is Gulen, a shady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania…Gulen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist.” Remember what Trump said during his campaign about banning Muslims from entering the US?

Flynn concludes that: “We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.”

If rhetoric is anything to go by, Erdogan and Trump may also be on the same page about improving relations with Russia. Trump has pledged a less confrontational approach towards Moscow. “I think Putin and I will get along very well,” he told the New York Times back in July.

“I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace”, he said in one of his earlier comments.

Speaking of terrorism, what about Islamic State and Syria? Well, his stance on these issues is a bit problematic for Turkey. According to Trump, the US and Russia can eliminate IS together. Yet Russia is the closest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Erdogan wants him toppled.

“I think that ISIS is a threat that’s much more important for us right now than Assad”, he said. Well, this is not what Turkey wants to hear. Yes, Turkey is discussing and implementing multi-billion energy projects with Russia despite their differences over Syria. But it is a bit unrealistic to think that the US, Russia and Turkey will build a bloc to end the Syrian conflict.

Trump also has a different view on the Kurds: “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces”, he told the New York Times. When reminded Erdogan is not, Trump said: “It would be really wonderful if we could put them - Turks and Kurds – somehow both together”. And his plan for making this happen is “meetings”.

But, unlike the Obama administration, Trump has had nothing but praise for what Erdogan has done after the coup attempt. “I give great credit to him for being able to turn that around…So that was quite impressive from the standpoint of existing government.”

He has refrained from criticising the sweeping purges in the wake of the botched putsch, because Trump thinks the US is not in a position “to lecture other countries about what they do inside their borders…when America itself has a lot of problems when it comes to civil liberties”.

His comments give the impression that that the new administration will not give too many headaches to Ankara over the human rights and freedoms that the EU purports to hold dear. The EU might now find itself alone in criticising Turkey and be forced to “put up or shut up” if it continues to hint at freezing accession talks.