By Beatriz Vicent Fernández, 89 Spain

Turkish relations with the European Union have become increasingly complex over the past decades. The evolution of the Turkish approach to foreign policies since 2002 and the remarkable changes on the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) narratives about the EU resulted in a deep mutual distrust.

Although the Turkey-EU tensions started to develop between 2005 and 2007, the attempted coup d’etat of 2016 further deteriorated these relations. After the AKP’s response to the attempted military takeover, that included the introduction of the state of emergency, the European Parliament adopted two resolutions on Turkey calling to “formally suspend the accession negotiations with Turkey without delay if the constitutional reform packaged is implemented unchanged”. However, despite the official position of the European Union, focused on the defence of the rule of law and democratic values, the migration crisis was managed through an agreement with Ankara in 2016. From that moment on, Europe began to be in a position of dependence, which has been repeatedly used by the AKP to pressure Brussels.

For instance, in August 2019, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened to “open the doors” of Europe if their Western allies criticised Turkish military operations against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the North of Syria. Similarly, the great importance of Turkey in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the unexpected decision of Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria have contributed to situate the YPG matter at the centre of the debates. At the end of November, Ankara blocked a NATO defence plan for the Baltics and Poland to pressure the alliance members to label the YPG as a security threat to Turkey. In this current scenario of mutual distrust and dependence, the European Union should consider the two following issues.

First, although Turkey will always remain a key player for European security due to its geographical location, the management of the refugee crisis through a financial agreement placed the European Union in a delicate position. In addition to the remarkable polarisation of opinions and the multiple critiques to the agreement from a human rights perspective, it could be argued that the agreement has had counterproductive effects. The EU does not have yet a short-term plan or long-term strategy to manage the integration of migrants and prepare for future waves of migration. However, future influxes are predictable, especially because of the persistence of several armed conflicts and the increase of climate-driven migration. On the other hand, the agreement has further strained relations with Turkey, which has repeatedly accused the EU of not fulfilling its part of the agreement as well as threatened to “open the borders”.  Even if these tensions have only been expressed at a discursive level, issues such as the YPG status, the support or condemnation of Turkish military operations and the relations between Turkey and the EU should be assessed from the most objective parameters possible, without being influenced by pressures and dependency relations.

Second, the situation in Syria could worsen significantly in the near future. After the launch of the Turkish operation “Spring Peace” in October 9, fears of a future humanitarian crisis increased rapidly. The constant requests of the Turkish government for the European Union and the United States to declare the YPG a terrorist organisation has dominated the debate by displacing two key issues for the EU’s security and defence of its values: to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish populations in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). It is foreseeable that the ISIS insurgency will remain present in Syria for a considerable period. In this scenario, the growing destabilisation of Northern Syria, as well as the inability of NGOs and development programs to work in conflict zones, could have extremely negative consequences in the region. In this way, the European Union must find a firm position that avoids future complications, in terms of regional and human security.

In short, the on-going tensions between Turkey and the EU have been characterised by a dependency relationship in the field of refugee management and a growing belligerent attitude in Ankara, facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Although cooperation and dialogue between Turkey and the EU is essential, the current situation in Northern Syria and the foreseeable arrival of new migrants to Europe are two key points that must be considered. A short- and long-term strategy is necessary to face future challenges and greater independence from Turkey to respond in a consistent and firm manner.