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Speaking loudly but carrying a small stick: is the EU powerless against Erdogan?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a joint press conference following their talks in the Black sea resort of Sochi on October 22, 2019. Sergei CHIRIKOV / POOL / AFP

The European Union’s stance on Turkey’s military incursion in Northern Syria is one of the rare instances in which the EU spoke loudly and with a single voice. While the EU publicly condemned Turkey’s operations in northern Syria, its discourse has not been backed by concrete action nor a persuasive engagement with Turkey.

Instead, the decisive factor in stopping Turkey’s military offensive was the US-brokered five-day ceasefire agreement between Turkey and the Kurdish militia on October 17. It was followed by a deal reached between Turkey and Russia on October 22, under which the two countries agreed on the parameters of a safe zone along the Syria-Turkey border.

According to the deal, Turkey will maintain its military presence in the northeast Syria – the area seized since the start of “Operation Peace Spring” – and Russian troops together with the Syrian army will control the rest of the frontier with a view to pushing Kurdish militia away from the Turkey-Syria border.

Although the EU has stated that Turkey’s military offensive and subsequent developments threaten its vital security interests, why was Brussels a marginal actor during the crisis?

Negotiations at a standstill

The first factor that prevented the EU from being an influential actor in the recent crisis is the erosion of its leverage power vis-à-vis Turkey. While Turkey is still officially a candidate country to the EU, and hence theoretically the most vulnerable country to the EU’s pressure, accession negotiations have come to a standstill. Despite rhetorical commitment to the objective of accession, Turkey’s membership is off the table for both Ankara and Brussels.

Instead of seeking new ways to re-establish relations on a mutually satisfactory and functional basis, the EU and Turkey have blamed each other for the deterioration of their relationship since the opening of accession negotiations in October 2005.

The EU blames Turkey for distancing itself from the EU, while Turkey blames the EU for putting the Cyprus issue at the centre of bilateral relations as well as the other member states for blocking the accession process.

Since the opening of negotiations, vetoes by the European Council, France and Cyprus on the opening and closing of chapters in Turkey’s accession talks, and the overt opposition of France, Germany and Denmark have exacerbated the Turkish government’s belief that the EU treats Turkey unfairly.

Diminishing attractive power of the EU

In the meantime, the EU failed to open critical chapters for sustaining Turkey’s democratisation process (such as Chapter 23 on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Chapter 24 on Justice, Freedom and Security). It has also been reluctant to start negotiations on the modernisation of the customs union. The customs union between the EU and Turkey, which entered into force in 1995, covers all industrial goods but excludes agriculture (except processed agricultural products), services or public procurement.

By extending the customs union to the services, agriculture and public procurement, the EU could further economically anchor Turkey to the EU. But the proposal put forward by the Commission in 2016 was stopped by the Council in June 2018 on the basis of Turkey’s accelerated authoritarian drift.

On the EU side, had these opportunities not been sacrificed, Turkey would have had a lot to lose from a deteriorating relationship with Europe, giving the EU proper leverage in times of crisis.

Europe’s lack of strategy in Syria

The second factor that has held Europe back from being an influential player in the recent crisis is its miscalculated policy on Syria. Instead of developing a long-term policy aimed at stabilising the region, Europe followed a passive policy and opted for short-term solutions centered around mainly two objectives.

First, Europe confined its interests to the containment of Syrian refugees in adjacent regions (and away from EU territory). One of the main pillars of this policy is the 2016 deal between EU leaders and Turkey, intended to stop the influx of refugees from Turkey to the EU. This agreement made Europe vulnerable to blackmail by the Turkish president, who threatens to release 3.6 millions of refugees into Europe.

The second objective of Europe was to keep the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) in Syria under control. To achieve this objective, the US and Europe relied on the Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

PKK, which has launched several deadly attacks across Turkey over the past few decades is also on the EU list of terrorist organisations. This raised questions about the sustainability of Europe’s approach to the fight against IS, which relies on arming, training and working with Kurdish militia. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria altered Europe’s plans for controlling IS via the Kurdish forces by providing the much-needed power vacuum for Turkey to conduct its operations in northern Syria in order to eradicate YPG from Turkey’s southern border.

The EU is ill-equipped to deal with authoritarian countries

Lastly, the EU is not well-equipped to deal with authoritarian countries. While autocrats use every opportunity to enhance their power, the attempts of the EU to use traditional foreign-policy instruments play into the hands of authoritarian rulers.

For example, the EU was unsuccessful in imposing an arms embargo on Turkey at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on October 14. EU foreign ministers simply committed to “strong national positions regarding their arms export policy to Turkey”, agreeing to coordinate member states’ positions.

This symbolic decision, far from having an impact on Turkey, reinforced Erdogan’s anti-Western, Euro-sceptic discourse. The Turkish president immediately exploited the EU’s decision, highlighting “Turkey’s loneliness in the fight against terrorism”. Similarly, the European Parliament’s October 24 resolution on the Turkish military operation in northeast Syria, calling for smart sanctions against Turkey, had no impact.

The Turkish leader is well aware that these measures are unlikely to be applied in their entirety as the adoption of sanctions requires unanimity in the Council. On the contrary, EP’s resolution was used by Erdogan for fuelling resentment among Turkish society against the EU.

The limits of EU’s soft power

Although Turkey’s military offensive was loudly and harshly criticised by Europe, Turkey has not only obtained the recognition of the legitimacy of its military presence in northern Syria – through the deal concluded first with the US, and then with Russia, but has also secured an influential position over the final settlement of post-war Syria through Russia’s backing.

While the recent crisis shows the limits of the EU’s soft power and its diminished ability to shape developments in its vicinity, the consolidation of Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia is indicative of a more challenging period in the EU neighbourhood, where Europe will have to face an ever unreliable and unpredictable partner. Unless the EU assumes more responsibility in the Syrian conflict and develops new ways for re-engaging with Turkey, Brussels will continue to speak loudly while carrying a small stick.

This is not to say that the EU should turn a blind eye to the erosion of democracy or to the breaches of human rights in Turkey. On the contrary, the more incentives the EU offers to Turkish society, the harder it will be for Turkish government to continue to maintain strained relations with the EU. It is time for the EU to launch a more constructive relationship with Turkey, in which the cost of losing Europe for Turkey would greatly outweigh the benefits of seeking out alternative partnerships.

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