"Turkey is aware of how dependent it is on the EU"

At today's EU summit, the heads of state and government must decide on further dealings with the Turkish government. Some experts, however, doubt the usefulness of possible EU sanctions against the NATO member. In the end, the EU is likely to opt for rather mild sanctions
At today's EU summit, the heads of state and government must decide on further dealings with the Turkish government. Some experts, however, doubt the usefulness of possible EU sanctions against the NATO member. In the end, the EU is likely to opt for rather mild sanctions

Sanctions against Ankara are being considered at the EU summit. The number of those in favour has risen. It remains unclear how Germany will behave. But would such measures have any impact on Turkey?

By Panagiotis Kouparanis

At their meeting on Thursday and Friday, the heads of state and government of the European Union will discuss relations with Turkey. They will also discuss the imposition of sanctions against Ankara. The main reason for this is Turkey's conduct towards Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey continues unabated with its gas and oil explorations in the respective maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) claimed by both EU states. The foreign ministers of the European Union had already agreed on a range of sanctions against Turkey in September. Now it is up to the heads of state and government to put these measures into force – or not.

Mr. Seufert, so far decisions on sanctions against Turkey have been postponed at EU summits. What do you expect this time?

Gunter Seufert: The image of Turkey has deteriorated considerably in a number of EU member states that previously had a positive image of Turkey, partly as a result of Turkey's foreign policy. For example, in Spain, Italy and Poland. At the same time, however, Spain and Italy in particular fear that possible sanctions could lead to an impairment of the Turkish economy and thus run counter to their own economic interests.

Turkey was already the subject of discussion among EU foreign ministers at their meeting in Brussels on Monday. After the meeting, EU foreign affairs envoy Josep Borrell said there didn't appear to have been a fundamental change in Turkey's behaviour, and that there was unanimous agreement. According to this stocktaking, sanctions should actually be imposed.

Seufert: That is correct. Turkey has not met any of the conditions that the EU set out at the October 1 summit for moving forward on a positive axis. Ankara has again violated the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Cyprus and has also created new points of contention. In Cyprus, for example, Turkey suddenly declared the Greek Cypriot coastal village of VA rosha part of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," which only it recognizes. The Turkish government has also abandoned the internationally recognized framework for a solution to the Cyprus problem – i.e., the creation of a unified state – and is now counting on recognition of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus". By doing so, Ankara has escalated the situation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has also activated the Russian S-400 missile defence system exactly within the deadline set by the EU, which is not in the EU's interest at all. And finally, in a dispute with French President Emmanuel Macron, it has accused all European countries that have experienced Muslim immigration of Islamophobia and the racist treatment of Muslims. Based on the EU's decision-making, therefore, and looking at how Turkey has behaved, there should be a firm reaction against Ankara. Whether that will happen, however, is another matter.

Turkey under pressure

Division of economic zones in the Mediterranean (photo: DW)
Agreement on the division of economic zones in the Mediterranean. The contested economic zones overlap to some degree. The EU heads of state and government will meet for a summit in Brussels on 10 and 11 December. At the meeting, possible sanctions against Turkey over its controversial search for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean are also to be discussed

So far, the German government has prevented sanctions from being imposed on Turkey. Important issues for Germany are the refugee question, security aspects, Ankara's remaining in the Western alliance system and the fight against terrorism. Will the Chancellor be able to maintain this position at the summit?

Seufert: Certainly, it will be more difficult for her. The number of countries that are impatient with Turkey has grown. Together with Greece, France and Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Baltic States as well as Ireland are also voting for a tougher approach. There is also great dissatisfaction with Turkey among German diplomats. Germany went out on a limb with its mediation efforts and its stalling role at the last EU summit. Turkey, however, has not accommodated the Chancellor in any way.

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Can sanctions make the Turkish government change its foreign policy behaviour? 

Seufert: Of course, decisive action by the European Union could moderate Turkish policy. Turkey is aware of how dependent it is on the EU. But it is counting on European disunity.

Are Athens and Nicosia partly to blame for the escalation in relations with Turkey?

Seufert: Athens initially profited greatly from the fact that the EU expressed its full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus in its declarations. In doing so, the EU implicitly supported the Greek view that islands can establish their own EEZ just like the mainland coast. As the conflict has escalated, however, Greece has been quick to declare its willingness to negotiate maritime borders and ultimately to recognise a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Turkey, on the other hand, has continued to raise new issues: the status of the Greek islands in the Aegean and the militarisation of these islands – although this has been the case for decades – as well as the status of rocks in the Aegean. In doing so, Ankara has tied a Gordian knot that is practically impossible to untie. The Republic of Cyprus has offered Turkey indirect or unofficial talks. Turkey has not accepted. Of course, Athens and Nicosia are also putting forward maximum demands, but they are also ready to de-escalate.

Turkey and Islam expert Gunter Seufert: "Turkey is aware of how dependent it is on the EU"
Türkei- und Islam-Experte Günter Seufert: "Die Türkei ist sich bewusst, wie abhängig sie von der EU ist"

Ankara is looking to establish itself as a regional power

So far, Greeks and Cypriots have not found huge oil and gas deposits. Experts doubt whether it is financially worthwhile at all to extract the existing deposits in Cyprus' EEZ and export them to Europe. Why is Turkey nevertheless risking a deterioration of relations with the EU by sending its research vessels to the EEZs of both EU member states?

Seufert: The reality is that experts do not suspect that there are large deposits in the maritime zones that are being contested between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus respectively. The most promising zones are said to be those claimed by Israel and Egypt, which are not under dispute. It therefore looks very much as if Turkish energy needs are not the decisive point for Ankara's aggressive posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rather, it is about Turkey establishing itself as the future regional power that controls trade, energy and migration flows in the Eastern Mediterranean to its own benefit. In this way, Ankara also wants to secure access to the North African and other African markets, where it sees itself competing with European powers, especially France.

Donald Trump has paid little attention to Turkey's behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean. By all accounts, Joe Biden, on the other hand is not about to accept the situation. Will the Turkish government take it upon itself to worsen relations with the USA?

Seufert: It is significant that Ankara still activated the S-400 missile system during the last weeks of the Trump administration in the hope that no sanctions would follow. Turkey knows that Joe Biden will cultivate a different style. Any calls from Erdogan to the White House will no longer be necessarily relayed through to the president. Relations will be governed more by formal diplomacy. Erdogan also knows that Biden will pay more attention to the rule of law and human rights. At the same time, Biden will try to push back Russian influence in the region, and here Turkey can be of use to him. U.S. relations with Turkey are not likely to get much worse as a result, but a different style will take hold. Ankara will try to offer itself as a power that is indispensable for the USA with regard to Russia. The question is how Biden will respond to that.

Interview: Panagiotis Kumaran’s

© Deutsche Well 2020

Gunter Seufert heads the Centre for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin. He was Turkey correspondent, among others for the Berliner Zeitung and Zeit, and has taught at universities in Istanbul, Nicosia and Lausanne. His research focuses on Turkey, Cyprus, migration, EU expansion policy and political Islam/Islamism.