Europe should pivot from half-hearted confrontation to a rules-based relationship with Ankara.By Nathalie Tocci
ROME — Whichever way one looks at it, the European Union’s policy toward Turkey does not hold water.
For the past several months, the bloc has adopted a strategy of mild confrontation over Turkey’s belligerence in the Mediterranean while taking pains not to alienate a NATO ally with growing influence in Libya, where European leaders are desperate to bring an end to a destabilizing civil war.
It’s time for the EU to stop trying to have it both ways and reset the relationship with Turkey, rebuilding a partnership on the grounds of rules-based cooperation.
Given what the EU sees as violations of international law by Ankara, the bloc has had to respond to Turkey’s violations of Greek airspace and territorial waters and its seismic surveys and drilling in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. The latest iteration of this escalating cycle took place Tuesday, when a Turkish announcement of new seismic surveys near a Greek island was met by warnings from Greece and Germany.
There’s little disguising that the EU’s confrontational approach toward Turkey has been mild overall.
At the same time, the EU hasn’t been able to ignore the fact that Ankara has become a prominent actor in the Mediterranean, notably in Libya — a country the EU cannot ignore and where Turkey, if steered, could be induced to work in Europe’s interests.
Pulled in two directions, the EU has sought to find a middle ground. In November last year, the European Council adopted a framework for restrictive measures in response to Turkey’s drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean, creating the possibility of imposing travel bans and asset freezes on individuals or entities responsible for or involved in such activities.
On top of that, the EU suspended negotiations on a Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and postponed sine die the EU-Turkey Association Council and the EU-Turkey High-Level Dialogues. It also reduced Turkey’s pre-accession assistance and invited the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in the country.
In March this year, the EU went a step further. It launched Operation Irini, a naval operation aimed at enforcing the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. Although High Representative Josep Borrell has repeatedly stated the operation is not aimed at any one party (read Turkey), Irini is a maritime operation and only Turkey’s weapons reach Libya via sea.
The trouble is that Libya is already awash with weapons that various factions receive from other parties, which have preferred air and land routes into the country. Hence, a maritime-only operation has been seen as one-sided, unsurprisingly soliciting the objection of Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, which Turkey has intervened to support.
At the same time, there’s little disguising that the EU’s confrontational approach toward Turkey has been mild overall.
The EU has not moved to implement sanctions on Ankara and is unlikely to do so in future. When Operation Irini spotted a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of carrying Turkish weapons to Libya, the vessel was eventually let go. And when a similar incident repeated itself with NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian, the entire affair boiled down to much rhetorical acrimony — including harsh words from French President Emmanuel Macron — and precious little action.
This half-stick approach is simply not working: It is not assertive enough to deter Turkey (and it’s not even clear that more decisive action would reverse the country’s long-standing position on the Aegean and Cyprus).
Instead, Europe’s mild confrontation has entailed the gradual evaporation of all policy tracks within which the EU can trigger behavioral change in Ankara. It has exacerbated the already strained EU-Turkey relationship, driven an indelible wedge within NATO and pushed Ankara into Moscow’s cynical embrace.
Indeed, Europe’s approach to Turkey has been manna from heaven for Putin, particularly when it comes to Libya.
The Libyan civil war is at risk to becoming yet another semi-frozen conflict.
Turkey’s intervention in the country went far beyond the EU’s comfort zone, in that it has contributed to a further militarization of the conflict. However, it has also enabled the U.N.-recognized government to push back against the warlord Khalifa Haftar’s onslaught on the capital.
As recently as January, Haftar and his backers still believed the winner would take all. Today, it is clear that neither side can prevail over the other, and all the players with interests in the region — Turkey, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the United States and the EU — know this.
Turkey’s intervention, in other words, has created a mutually hurting stalemate that could, if steered correctly, revive hopes for a cease-fire.
Time has come for the EU — via Paris, Athens and Nicosia — to opt for a U-turn, and start treating Turkey as a partner, rather than an adversary.
From here, Libya could go in one of two directions. It could move along a virtuous path in which a military stalemate triggers a durable cease-fire, which then veers toward a peace settlement. Or the situation could deteriorate into a persistent low-intensity conflict, used at will by regional players to expand their influence and exacerbate the vulnerabilities of the EU and NATO’s southern flanks.
One need only take a look at the sad list of conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus to see not only how easily a cease-fire can lead to simmering conflict, but also how such persistent unrest is a cornerstone of Russia’s foreign policy.
This is why Europe should pivot from a strategy of mild confrontation to establish an assertive, rules-based relationship with Turkey.
These two goals may seem contradictory, but in practice they are not. An eastern Mediterranean in which Turkey does not enjoy a piece of the pie is simply incompatible with the stabilization of Libya. Given the political geography of the region, Ankara will always need a friend in Tripoli to break the exclusionary circle that has been built around it.
The sooner Europeans factor this in, the better. The conditions for such a reset have been known for some time: It will include moving forward with a modernized customs union, which would represent a boon for Turkey and for the EU, and using this revamped contractual basis to establish structural cooperation in the fields of energy, security and migration.
Rather than banging our heads against the brick wall of mild confrontation, time has come for the EU — via Paris, Athens and Nicosia — to opt for a U-turn, and start treating Turkey as a partner, rather than an adversary.
Nathalie Tocci is director of Istituto Affari Internazionali, a special adviser to European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, and the author of POLITICO‘s World View column. Her opinions are her own.