On Turkey

Role Reversal? EU-U.S. Cooperation on Turkey

May 26, 2021
8 min read
Turkey and the New Transatlantic Agenda

Turkey and the New Transatlantic Agenda

Joe Biden’s election aroused expectations in Europe of cooperation with a “like-minded” president across a range of current challenges. Within a month, the EU published an ambitious “new transatlantic agenda for global change.” This identified relations with Turkey as among the subjects for cooperation. According to the new agenda, “The EU and the US share a strategic interest in a stable and secure Eastern Mediterranean. We should seek a coordinated approach in our relations with Turkey, including by addressing current challenges.”

The idea that “the EU and the US should pursue common interests and leverage our collective strength to deliver results on our strategic priorities” received a nod from the Biden transition team. But the EU’s transatlantic menu touches on areas of divergence as well as convergence with Washington and cannot count on the unwavering support of all member countries.


There is broad transatlantic agreement that Turkey is an important NATO ally, regional power, and economic partner, with a major role in assuring or impairing stability in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. This role has played out recently with mixed results in Azerbaijan, Syria, Libya, Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. There is concern on both sides of the Atlantic about governance and human rights issues within the country and about Ankara’s shaky rapprochement with Moscow, which is at odds with its support for actors opposed by Russia, from Libya to Ukraine.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missiles has become the focus of transatlantic tensions with Turkey. This is an issue of concern also to the 21 EU countries that are NATO members. This acquisition has enabled President Vladimir Putin to protect Russia’s southern flank by ensuring that Turkey does not acquire U.S. Patriot missiles or F-35 stealth fighters. It also ended the involvement of Turkish firms in the production of parts for the F-35. The previous U.S. administration sanctioned Turkey for its acquisition of S-400 missiles but did not allow the issue to disrupt President Donald Trump’s generally cordial relations with his Russian and Turkish counterparts. However, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400s, democratic backsliding, and active lobbying by groups critical of Erdoğan explain the arms-length treatment accorded to Ankara by the President Biden.

There is concern, too, in Europe and the United States about Turkish efforts to break up political, military, and energy cooperation among Turkey’s adversaries in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Ankara’s tentative steps toward reconciliation with rivals in the Muslim world—especially Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and potentially Saudi Arabia—are meant, among other things, to pry these countries, as well as Israel, out of their informal alignment with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

Turkish advocacy of a “two-state solution” to the problem of the division of Cyprus, contrary to the UN formula of a bicommunal, bizonal federation, is not seen as constructive in Brussels or Washington.


Turkey’s drilling activities and naval presence in disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean led to the imposition of nominal EU sanctions against two officials of the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO). Yet Biden’s wider concern over NATO unity has led him to discourage the EU from imposing stricter sanctions on Turkey, as urged by Cyprus and Greece. Instead, Washington has backed deconfliction talks between Athens and Ankara in the NATO framework. The United Kingdom, rather than the EU, was the main mover in recent unsuccessful efforts to restart the UN Cyprus settlement process.

Turkey’s military intervention proved decisive in defeating the forces of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, backed openly or covertly by Egypt, France, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, and subsequently in establishing the provisional Government of National Unity. But the EU has not played an active part in efforts to stabilize Libya because member countries supported different factions in the country’s civil war. Uncoordinated national initiatives by member states on Libya stand in the way of combined EU diplomatic efforts. This makes it difficult for the EU to engage with Washington on the issues.

European countries tend to focus on Turkey as an economic partner and a transit country for oil and gas, whereas the United States views Turkey in a strategic context, including with regard to dealing with Russia, China, Iran, and the Gulf countries. Austria, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands are among Turkey’s top trade and investment partners, and the country is vital to European supply chains, especially in the automobile and machine sectors. Turkey will become an even more important source of inputs for European industry if efforts to shorten supply chains and reduce dependence on China succeed.

Turkey’s importance as a transit route to Europe for gas from the Shah Deniz field in Azerbaijan has grown since the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline began commercial operations last November. The notion of an alternative Eastern Mediterranean pipeline bringing gas to Europe from Israeli and Cypriot offshore fields is increasingly recognized as impractical in technical and financial terms. The European Green Deal makes it unlikely that the EU will promote hydrocarbon projects of this order in future.

Democracy and Human Rights

In principle, European countries and the United States agree on the importance of upholding democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Turkey. But in practice trade, investment, and migration interests limit the EU’s willingness or ability to take measures to enforce this. Biden clearly has strong feelings about human rights, unlike his predecessor. This will limit the warmth of his engagement with current leaders in Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf countries. Biden’s reference to the 1915 Ottoman massacre of Armenians as genocide was an earnest signal of his intentions. Ankara’s mild response underlined its narrowing foreign policy options. The European Parliament took a similar step in 2015 and many member states have accepted that the massacre constituted genocide.

Biden is likely to remain firm on U.S. points of contention with Turkey, including human rights, cooperation with the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, the refusal to extradite the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, and the indictment of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank for the violation and evasion of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The EU monitors fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey because the country is still a candidate for membership, despite the freezing of its accession talks. Moreover, human rights benchmarks must be fulfilled before the EU will remove visa obligations for Turkish travelers or move ahead with its mooted “positive agenda,” extending the two sides’ customs union. The European Commission and Parliament criticize democratic backsliding in Turkey and its political interference in EU countries. Turkey’s abandonment of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, as well as the apparent downgrading of the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to Ankara in April, brought many of these issues to a head.

Business as Usual

Yet democratic backsliding and verbal or protocol clashes have not significantly affected EU countries’ relations with Turkey. EU governments generally prefer to delegate expressions of disapproval of Turkish political lapses to the Brussels institutions while conducting their own business with the country as usual. The priorities of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel during her final months in office seem to be preserving the 2016 EU-Turkey migration agreement and the business climate in Turkey for German firms. The migration deal is a key legacy issue for her, as a counterweight to her stand authorizing asylum seekers to enter Germany during the 2015 migration crisis. She is sensitive, too, to the feelings of some four million people of Turkish origin in Germany, especially ahead of the September elections.

Italy, too, is heavily invested in Turkey. Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed exasperation at Erdoğan’s belittling of von der Leyen, but this did not affect Rome’s support for Berlin’s broadly conciliatory position. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has moderated his stance on Turkey recently and now supports Merkel’s efforts to achieve EU unity. The preference of several EU countries for accommodating Turkey is in line with their approach to China and Russia that prioritizes trade, investment, and dialogue over public diplomacy. This is in marked contrast to the United States’ recent more strident tone.

Role Reversal?

There has been something of a role reversal between the EU and the United States on policy toward Turkey, China, and Russia since Biden took office. Previously European representatives pursued “principled pragmatism” while the previous U.S. administration displayed partiality for strong rulers with little regard for their human rights records. Today European governments tend to propitiate authoritarian rulers when major economic, security, or migration interests are at stake, while the United States, with its relatively closed economy and recent social democratic tilt, seems more inclined to seek the moral high ground. President Biden has cold-shouldered Erdoğan and Putin, and he is ready for confrontation with China over domestic repression, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Skeptical European observers tend to view U.S. high-mindedness as opportunistic, camouflaging material interests.

Anxiety in Turkey over the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections may produce further displays of nationalism that impinge on transatlantic interests and values. Any moves such as the annexation, or threatened annexation, of north Cyprus, orders for additional Russian missiles, the banning of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), or other forms of domestic repression should be met by firm measures from the EU, including sanctions, preferably concerted with the United States.

Transatlantic Cooperation

The EU’s ambitions for a new transatlantic agenda on cooperation regarding Turkey are not unrealistic. The Biden administration, too, wants a coordinated approach with the EU whenever possible. European countries will be seeking understanding from Washington for their higher degree of engagement with Turkey on trade, energy, migration, and other concrete interests. They will be looking to the United States, albeit reluctantly, for diplomatic initiatives on conflicts they have been unable to prevent or resolve in North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Washington will be urging transatlantic unity on issues perceived as strategic, like Turkish arms purchases from Russia, including a possible exit strategy from this for Ankara. Transatlantic cooperation on such intractable issues will require trade-offs, mutual support, and diplomatic dexterity to succeed.

Photo credit: Arkeonaval / Shutterstock.com

This policy paper was produced as part of the Trilateral Strategy Group (TSG), a multi-year project undertaken in partnership with the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), Koç Holding, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. The opinions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the TSG partners.