Ankara shifting towards EU amid sanction fears

ANKARA: Turkey is attempting to mend its fragile relationship with Brussels as the threat of imminent EU sanctions looms over the country, experts have said.

Ankara’s shift started when Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin met EU officials in Brussels on Friday, days after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said no “positive signals” were coming from Turkey over the Mediterranean dispute.

It took one day for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said earlier that “Turkey’s place is in Europe,” to call on the EU to keep its promises on Turkey’s EU membership process and the refugee issue.

In recent weeks, Erdogan drafted a democratic reform agenda in order to win the hearts and minds of those in Brussels.

However, experts have warned that “Ankara’s actions matter more than words.”

Sinem Adar, an associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said there are four simultaneous factors motivating the recent statements by the Turkish government.

“The first has to do with the domestic situation. Here, it is necessary to think of Finance Minister Berat Albayrak’s resignation and the ensuing emphasis on upcoming reforms, mainly in economy and law, together with the conflict within the ruling alliance that appears to be over the limits of potential reforms, but in reality, is about political power,” she told Arab News.

Adar said that Erdogan’s space to maneuver is narrowing as the influence of MHP leader Devlet Bahceli becomes more pronounced within the ruling alliance.

“Secondly, these calls are definitely connected to the incoming Biden administration, during which resolving issues through personal relations between the two leaders will not be as easy as it was under the Trump administration,” she said.

Thirdly, Adar added, Ankara is trying to prevent possible sanctions by the US and EU. US sanctions will likely come in the form of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and Halkbank trial on evasion of US sanctions on Iran.

Karol Wasilewski, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said there are two interconnected motives behind Turkey’s recent moves, the first being related to protecting the Turkish economy and the second about changing US leadership.

“With Trump gone and Biden in, the Turks are aware that the ‘free ride’ period — where Turkey’s actions were not met with proper consequences — is over,” he told Arab News.

“Biden will not be as willing to shield Turkey from CAATSA sanctions or the fallout from the Halkbank issue by obstructing the US judiciary as Trump supposedly was, and these two issues could sink Turkey’s economy, while also having a negative impact on Erdogan’s power,” Wasilewski added.

He added that the sudden Turkish “U-turn” is an attempt to “buy some more time” and convince Western partners that Turkey is “ready for a reset.”

Meanwhile, Turkey sent its seismic research vessel Oruc Reis back into EU waters on Nov. 21 for another eight days ahead of the EU leaders’ summit on Dec. 10 and 11, where the possibility of further sanctions against Turkey over its Mediterranean activities will be discussed.

“Given the depth of the economic crisis today in Turkey, sanctions would make an already bad situation worse. These signals both to the US and the EU also have to do with the poor balancing act that Ankara has been trying to play for a while now between Russia and the transatlantic alliance,” Adar said.

From that perspective, Adar added, it is no coincidence that Turkish messages to the US propose that Ankara “could be a partner” with the US in containing Russia.

“On the one hand, Turkey is signaling its willingness to restore relations with the US and EU, and, at the same, it keeps emphasizing the autonomy of Turkish foreign policy and seems to expect understanding from the US on its efforts to pull itself up by its bootstraps,” Adar said.

Wasilewski said that re-energizing the accession process is not possible as it would require a “deep democratization of Turkey,” including rebuilding institutions, modifying the presidential system and reintroducing a free media and judicial independence.

“And this runs counter to the basic interest of the Erdogan regime, which is survival,” he added.

“The furthest the EU and Turkey can go in the these circumstances is to find a new formula of relations, like modernizing the customs union. But even this would be uneasy, as it would require changes in Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies.”

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