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EU: Forever Timid on Erdogan’s Turkey?

The EU searches for a solid strategy for dealing with Turkey. The new U.S. administration may induce it to toughen its course.

December 14, 2020

The EU searches for a solid strategy for dealing with Turkey. The new U.S. administration may induce it to toughen its course.

In the run-up to the recent EU summit in Brussels, speculations ran high that EU leaders would impose stiff sanctions against Turkey over its Mediterranean drilling activities.

Three countries — Greece, Cyprus and France — led the campaign to punish Ankara for what the EU terms “unilateral actions and provocations.”

EU: Tough talk, soft stick?

The EU’s language to date has been clear and harsh, but its actions vis-à-vis Ankara are timid and, in effect, toothless.

For now, the EU has refrained from hard punitive measures affecting entire sectors of the Turkish economy.

Instead, EU leaders agreed to punish individuals and companies implicated in planning or taking part in what the EU says is unauthorized drilling in disputed maritime zones.

Also, the weapons embargo that is being pushed by the Greeks and by two opposition parties in Germany, the Greens and the left party Die Linke, is off the table — for the time being, at least.

The EU could get much tougher soon

In Europe’s high-level politics, few things are permanent. The EU heads of state and/or government tasked Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to keep a close eye on Turkey’s conduct in the coming three months and report back in March.

Actually, he had done just that ahead of the most recent meeting. The former Spanish Foreign Minister’s account was not favorable for Mr. Erdogan: “We have not seen a fundamental change in the Turkish behavior,” Borrell said.

“On the contrary, in several aspects the situation has worsened.” Borrell’s negative grade card, however, had no impact on the policymakers.

EU still dis-united on Erdogan

While everyone seems to agree that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s behavior, or misbehavior to use a more fitting term, is the cause of the problems in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Europeans are at odds how to deal with the troublemaker.

In the end, they resolved — for now — to reach out with a “positive agenda,” i.e., an offer of economic and political incentives should Erdogan change his course.

The package of measures includes better economic relations, the modernization of the Customs Union and more money for the four million Syrian refugees who have found a new home in Anatolia.

A watershed moment?

EU-Turkey relations are at a watershed moment, Josep Borrell had said ahead of the summit.

However, he had used exactly the same words before an earlier summit in October announcing wide ranging pending strategic decisions. These did not materialize, once again leaving future EU-Turkey relations in limbo.

His pronouncements have lost much of their importance in domestic Turkish politics. Turkish analysts refer to a process of “de-Europeanization” for the drifting away of Ankara from the West.

As for his part, Mr. Erdogan has been sending conflicting signals. Quite recently, he proclaimed: “We see ourselves in Europe, not anywhere else; we look to build our future with Europe.”

Shortly thereafter, he accused the EU of “strategic blindness” and stated: “The EU has never acted honestly, it has never kept its promises towards Turkey.”

Postponed is not abandoned

However, it could be a real mistake on Mr. Erdogan’s part to believe that the EU will play softball with him forever.

After all, sanctions postponed are not sanctions abandoned. The EU will tackle the Turkish issue once again at the next summit in March.

Meanwhile, the expectation in Europe is that Erdogan will stand still in the dispute with Greece and Cyprus, allowing at least for a resumption of the diplomatic process.

Erdogan in his own words

If we take Erdogan by his words, it is doubtful that he will stick to a moratorium: “We will not accept plans that aim to confine our country,” he said, before turning on to Greece and Cyprus which he accused of “imperialist expansionism.”

It seems only a matter of time before Ankara dispatches once again its research vessel, the Oruc Reis.

President Erdogan had the vessel parked in the harbor of Antalya for the duration of the EU summit. Resuming explorations in disputed waters would once again fan the flames in the region.


“The EU will seek to coordinate on matters relating to Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean with the United States,” the heads of state announce in Friday’s communique.

At first sight, this sounds positive. But it is essentially a confession of weakness: Europe is not in the position to bring the erratic partner in Ankara to senses without American help.

The Biden team will change the equation

The big question is what the incoming Biden administration is up to.

The President-elect has not been one to mince his words on Turkey in the past. For example, Mr. Biden had called on President Trump to press the Turks to avoid “any further provocative actions against Greece.”

Sure, that was before the elections, at a time when Greek American votes were for grabs. But it is very hard to imagine that the cozy relationship which Messrs. Erdogan and Trump enjoyed with one another will continue.

Nervousness in Ankara

During the entire 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, the political class in Ankara held the fingers crossed that Donald Trump, the incumbent, would prevail.

Now, Erdogan’s calculus is changing. He must come to terms with the 46th U.S. President.

This, optimists in Ankara opine, presents Turkey’s President with the opportunity to mend the relations with the West.

EU-Turkey relations could only benefit from such a move. However, Mr. Erdogan’s key coalition partner, the MHP, seems very focused on limiting the president’s room of maneuver.


The EU has played softball with Turkish president Erdogan. But it could be a mistake for him to believe that it will do so forever.

Ankara held its fingers crossed that Trump would prevail. Now, Erdogan’s calculus is changing as he must come to terms with the 46th US President.

The incoming Biden administration will change the European equation on Turkey. Biden has not been one to mince his words on Turkey in the past.

As the EU searches for a solid strategy for dealing with Turkey, the new US administration may induce it to toughen its course.

Erdogan must understand that EU sanctions postponed are not sanctions abandoned.