Turkiye again tilting toward the EU

Yasar Yakis

The EU has given its first positive signal regarding the softening of its relations with Turkiye. This signal came last week from EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs Paolo Gentiloni, who said that the Turkiye-EU Customs Union might be updated by the autumn.
It looks like a positive gesture, but it is a long-overdue promise by the EU. Turkiye joined this customs union with the EU in advance of joining the bloc. This is a unique example. Some EU countries did exactly the opposite. They joined the EU but postponed for a while their adhesion to the customs union. But the main problem between Turkiye and the EU is the reluctance of Brussels to update the customs union. Turkiye has been losing money for decades because third countries that have signed similar deals with the EU can export their goods to Turkiye without paying customs duties, while Ankara cannot export goods to these countries because it has no customs agreement with them.
Each time Turkiye has asked the EU to update the customs union, it has come up with futile excuses and postponed any changes. Let us see whether the EU will again come up with new excuses. A similar sign this time came from a member of the US House of Representatives. In a practice not seen for decades, Rep. Pete Sessions traveled to the Turkish part of Cyprus directly from Turkiye. The Greek Cypriots have imposed a ban on foreigners traveling from Turkish airports to the Turkish part of Cyprus. We have to see whether this was an isolated initiative for a member of the US House of Representatives or if something is brewing on the US front as well.
Despite this background, there is a new reality in Europe. The increasingly strained relations between Russia and NATO have changed the power balance on the continent. Turkiye flirted with Russia for a while. It still hesitates about whether it should stay close to Russia and play a mediating role between East and West. This is a sensitive balance. If Turkiye does not play its cards skillfully, it may spoil the entire scenario. Every single member of the EU may have its own game plan for the role to be given to Turkiye in the future defense architecture in Europe.
Washington regards Sweden’s accession to NATO as a done deal, whereas Ankara is still trying to obtain as many concessions as possible to reduce the role of the Kurdish activists and the Turkish left in Sweden. Turkiye also had a preponderant role in the Black Sea grain deal, both because of the importance of the Turkish Straits and its warming relations with Russia at the time the agreement was reached last summer. In addition to the strategic importance of the Turkish Straits, there is an international agreement, the Montreux Convention, that gives Ankara the right to close the straits to foreign warships in case it perceives an imminent military threat. Article 20 of the convention provides that “the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish government.”
The role that Ankara has played in the grain deal continues to be important. Although it has nothing to do with Turkiye’s EU accession process, in a grand bargain like that every minute factor will probably play its role. Turkiye has a problem with the US as well. In 2021, it placed an order to buy 40 F-16 fighter aircraft and 79 modernization kits from America, but this deal has run into trouble. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and some other congressmen initially opposed the purchase, but lately have started to use milder language, saying that they need to give further consideration to the subject. If Russia-NATO tensions continue to rise, there will be an awkward situation between Ankara and Washington. Turkiye will be asked to contribute to the NATO forces, but the US may still continue to refuse to upgrade and sell spare parts to its NATO ally. This is an anomaly. By adopting such an attitude, Washington will be cutting down the fighting capacity of its biggest ally.
While Turkiye and Greece have recently softened their attitude toward each other, another chapter of their relations remains frozen. Greek Cypriots insist on a federal solution to the Cyprus problem, while Turkiye insists on a two-state solution. The two peoples of the island – Turks and Greeks – have very little in common. They speak different languages. They follow different religions. There are very few intermarriages between the adherents of these two religions. There are several examples of two-state solutions in the world, both big and small. One of them is the Baltic island of Usedom. The ratio of the land there is 373 sq km for Germany and 72 sq km for Poland. Saint Martin island in the Caribbean Sea is another example of a divided island. The French part constitutes 59 percent of the land and the Dutch part 41 percent. Other islands shared by two or more states include New Guinea, Borneo, Ireland, Hispaniola, Isla Grande Tierra del Fuego, Timor, and Sebatik Island. Therefore, insisting on a federal solution for Cyprus does not make sense. In the Middle East, Turkiye supports a two-state solution for Cyprus and almost all Middle Eastern countries support a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine. Turkiye’s EU bid may be revived during the new era that Europe will enter as a result of the Ukraine war. If Ankara plays a positive role in the present turmoil, it may change the course of events in its favor. If not, Turkiye will be left out of the EU accession process for many years to come.