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EU-Turkey tensions set to continue after Erdogan's victory

May 29, 2023

The European Union and Turkey are at odds on many issues — and problems will likely persist following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's reelection. Turkey's EU accession is unlikely anytime soon.

 A mosque in Istanbul behind an EU flag
Despite tensions, Turkey still aims to join the European Union — somedayImage: picture-alliance

How does the EU view its relationship with Turkey?

The European Commission is critical of the increasingly authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "The EU's serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed," European External Action Service officials wrote in their 2022 report on Turkey.

Instead, backsliding continues, they wrote. Their "concerns increased over economic governance and the good functioning of the market economy." 

Still, the report said, Turkey remains a strategically important partner on migration, climate protection and energy security. With its well-equipped military, the NATO member also plays an important role as a broker of the grain trade agreement between Russia and Ukraine. But EU leaders strongly criticized Turkey's threatening gestures toward member states Greece and Cyprus through repeated territorial violations by the air force and navy.

Donald Tusk, Erdogan and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
The last EU summit that Erdogan (center) attended was in Bulgaria in 2018Image: Reuters/S. Nenov

The EU has also repeatedly called on Turkish authorities to respect rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and release activist Osman Kavala, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2022 for taking part in anti-government protests in 2013 at Istanbul's Gezi Park. The protests have been cast as an attempted coup by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government — allowing the government to accuse Kavala of participating in a coup attempt by extension.

What is Turkey's stance?

According to an analysis by Turkey's Foreign Ministry, relations have been characterized by ups and downs for decades. After the alleged coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016, to which Turkey responded with emergency laws and restrictions on democratic rights, things have further deteriorated, the ministry acknowledged.

But the "EU's cold and critical attitude in the aftermath of the underhanded coup of July 15 has caused a crisis of confidence," according to the ministry. Officials said "a period of weakening of dialogue" arose after their EU counterparts "criticized necessary measures" imposed by Turkey's government in the aftermath. Erdogan accuses the Turkish preacher  Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in the United States, of plotting the coup.

Turkish intellectual and activist Osman Kavala sits at a microphone in 2014
Activist Kavala is one of many Turkish political prisoners whom the EU wants released Image: Wiktor Dabkowski/dpa/picture alliance

The European Union, however, remains an important strategic partner for Turkey, which often touts the importance of a 2015 agreement that kept displaced Syrians within the country, rather than allowing them to pass into the EU. About 3.5 million Syrians now live in Turkey, which has received payment and pledges of financial assistance that amount to nearly €9 billion ($9.65 billion). 

It's a fragile agreement. In 2020, Erdogan briefly opened Turkey's border with Greece near Edirne in order to use displaced Syrians as political leverage. 

A large crowd of people on the border between Turkey and Greece
Refugees at Edirne, on the border between Turkey and Greece, in 2020Image: DW/T. Öğreten

Is Turkey still a candidate for EU accession?

The Turkish government's goal remains joining the European Union at some point — if, according to the Foreign Ministry, the EU can manage to solve its internal problems. Accession talks could be revived after this presidential election, but first Turkey would have to at least indirectly recognize Cyprus as an EU member. Turkish troops have occupied the northern part of the country for nearly 50 years.

In 2018, the European Union effectively suspended accession negotiations with Turkey, which had been ongoing since 2005, but did not break them off completely. "I would not say they are dead," said Amanda Paul, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels. "I would say they are in a coma."

With Erdogan in power, there is little prospect of this changing, Paul said — though much depends on the European Union, and not just on Turkey

Amanda Paul speaks into a DW-branded microphone
Paul, of the European Policy Centre, is not optimistic about EU-Turkey relationsImage: DW

"It is a strange relationship that has deteriorated over time," Paul said. "To be honest, I do not expect any positive change."

Among member states and in Brussels, Paul said, there is rather little interest at the moment in dealing with an increasingly nationalistic Turkey. And yet, she added: "EU membership is still very popular among Turks. About 70% of the population still wants to join the EU."

What is the postelection outlook?

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was clearly critical of Turkey when she met with her counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Istanbul in July 2022. But she also made clear that no further confrontation was needed, saying NATO had to stick together to fend off Russia.

Infographic of EU candidate countries

"Friendship also includes listening to each other until your ears hurt," Baerbock said at a press conference during her visit. The reference to friendship is not insignificant. 

It follows that the European Union and NATO expect Turkey to finally give its assent to Sweden's accession to the military alliance after the election, which Erdogan had presumably blocked for political reasons ahead of the vote. Both Sweden's and Finland's entry into NATO had already been decided almost a year ago. Erdogan withdrew his veto of Finland in April. His thumbs-up for Sweden is expected to follow in July.

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union