Transatlantic Take

Trouble Looms for Turkey’s Transatlantic Ties

June 27, 2018
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
Divided Against, United Within?

ANKARA — Despite an economic downturn, concerns over democracy, discontent with the large population of Syrian refugees in the country, and a strong campaign by opposition, on Sunday President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attracted over 52 percent of the votes in the presidential election while the People’s Alliance (AKP–MHP), received around 53 percent of the votes and secured a majority in the parliamentary elections.

The opposition alliance and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) expected to put an end to the 16-year tenure of the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). It was the only motivation to bring together the secular-left Republican People's Party (CHP), the nationalist Good Party (İYİ), and the Islamist Felicity Party (SP). Opponents of President Erdoğan began making strategic choices; some tactical votes went to the HDP simply because the voters wanted it to pass the threshold to enter the parliament. While opposition expectations were rising, one point was overlooked. The religious conservatives and nationalists that make up the bulk of the population like Erdoğan’s performance and style, and they see no need for a change.

The political scene is now more divided. Deep polarization in society might have helped Erdoğan to achieve his vision of a new presidential system and enabled him to hold on to power. However, almost half of the population – despite its ideological and ethnical differences – feels alienated from the current political system. Erdoğan, in his new role, will need to address this challenge.

-Ceylan Canbilek, Senior Program Officer, Ankara

High Stakes, Little Prospect for Improvement in Turkish–Western Relations

BRUSSELS — Turkey’s election results offer little hope of a reset in its troubled relations with transatlantic partners. The elements that have contributed to the tension — and very real policy differences — remain, and some have been reinforced. The elections confirm the strength of nationalism as the center of gravity in Turkish politics. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his alliance partners, and much of the opposition have played heavily on conspiratorial notions of Turkey being under siege from a West eager to see it fail.

Despite Ankara’s flirtation with Moscow as an arms supplier and regional partner, Ankara surely needs NATO as a hedge against deepening instability in its neighborhood. Many Turks also still see value in closer ties with the EU.  But large portions of the Turkish public hold strongly negative views of Europe and, above all, the United States. This suspicion of the West has deep roots, and is unlikely to wane in the absence of new rhetoric from the presidential palace.

Erdoğan’s renewed mandate and the shift to a full-fledged presidential system will likely push Turkey even further from Western norms. Turkish–Western relations will turn to an increasing extent on geopolitical interests rather than common values. But as recent experience shows, these practical aspects of cooperation, from migration to policy on Russia, can be hard to manage in the absence of trust. And trust is now in very short supply.

-Ian Lesser, Vice President, Foreign Policy

Elections Change Nothing in a Transactional EU–Turkish Relationship

BRUSSELS — Discussions on Turkey’s relationship with the EU center around three potential structures for the future: full membership of Turkey to the EU, upgrading of the existing Customs Union for a deeper economic relationship, and transactional cooperation in the different areas of common interests such as immigration, energy, and counterterrorism. The Turkish candidacy has been put aside by the EU for some time, and relations are placed in the framework of the neighborhood policy. This week, the Council of Europe stated that Turkey's accession negotiations have come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing and that no further work will be done on modernizing the Customs Union.  Cooperation on a transactional basis has been the only option for relations.

Sunday’s elections change nothing in this regard. Despite developments in Turkey and the political crises between the EU and Turkey of recent years, the relationship is too important to both to fall below a political threshold of no return. EU member states will not sacrifice the geostrategic importance of Turkey, and neither the EU nor Turkey will risk their economic interests and security. The potential democratic structural problem posed by the new presidential system will not allow any progress in the EU accession process. If the state of emergency is lifted and there is an improvement of the rule of law, this could bring some moderation in EU–Turkey relations and it could push the EU to lift the block on upgrading the Customs Union in the future. If not, a shallow transactional relationship based on mutual interests will be the framework for these relations.

-Kadri Tastan, TOBB Senior Fellow

Low Expectations and Potential Backsliding in U.S.-Turkish Relations

WASHINGTON, DC — The outcome of the elections and the strengthening of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grip on power in Turkey should not have been a surprise to U.S. policymakers, including administration officials and Congress. Some may have hoped for a different outcome on Sunday, but Turkey watchers in the United States understood prior to the election that the playing field was tilted against the opposition. Conditions for candidates and parties to compete were not equal, as pointed out by the OSCE observer mission. 

Despite the increasing need for cooperation, expectations are decidedly low in Washington that bilateral relations will rebound after years of deterioration. The United States is seeking to “stabilize the relationship” and keep Turkey on a “Western Strategic Track.” There is deep distrust in Washington of Erdoğan, which is likely to grow as he is now set to control every level of power in Turkey. An added dimension coloring relations is a mercurial and emboldened U.S. president who bolsters bilateral instability. It is more likely that Erdoğan and Trump, who both thrive on political conflict, will repel each other rather than attract and cooperate.

Another wildcard in Washington is the U.S. Congress which is increasingly asserting itself in U.S.–Turkish relations. The Turkish election outcome has reinforced deeply rooted views from Capitol Hill that Erdoğan is an authoritarian and an increasingly unreliable NATO Ally. Major backsliding in bilateral relations is a real possibility. Erdoğan intentionally or unintentionally could trigger an administration or congressional reaction if his government moves forward on purchasing S-400 weapons systems from Russia, ignores re-imposed U.S. sanctions on Iran, and if the issue of Pastor Brunson’s detention is not resolved.

-Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow