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Turkey Warms Up to Europe as Its US Ties Fester

FILE - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.
FILE - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.

With U.S.-Turkish ties deeply strained, Ankara's relationship with Europe is warming. Berlin reportedly has invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a state visit. At the same time, Erdogan is organizing a summit between France, Germany, and Russia to discuss Syria.

This month, the Netherlands restored full diplomatic relations with Turkey after a bitter spat between the countries' leaders.

For more than a year, relations between Turkey and Europe have been in the deep freeze. Erdogan frequently engaged in rhetoric aimed at infuriating European leaders, often accusing them of behaving like Nazis. Turkey's detention of European nationals, particularly German citizens, often without charge, strained relations with Berlin to the breaking point.

Led by Germany, Europe had taken an increasingly assertive stance toward Turkey, with threats of financial and economic sanctions.

"The reason why bickering between Turkey and the EU stopped — the EU has finally reached conclusions about how to deal with Turkey, and Erdogan realized he couldn't push the EU around," said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.

Erdogan's re-election in June is offering a chance of a reset with Europe.

"There will be low-tension policies on both sides," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "In the next five years, they [Europe] have to deal with Tayyip Erdogan, and Erdogan has to deal with them."

"Turkish economic policies and strategies require more cooperation than confrontation in the long run," he added. "I consider this a new period with many lessons learned, with a more pragmatic and realistic foreign policy and economic policy orientation in the coming years."

Prize of rebuilding Syria

Burnt cars are seen in Quneitra, Syria, July 27, 2018.
Burnt cars are seen in Quneitra, Syria, July 27, 2018.

Turkey and the European Union have found common ground in opposing the U.S. withdrawal from the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Turkish companies, like their European counterparts, are facing American sanctions for trading with Iran.

However, analysts suggests any hope by Ankara for a united stance against Washington is misplaced.

"The way EU countries approach Iran sanctions is different. We already know big brands from Europe have left Iran," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen.

Economic factors remain a vital driving force behind Turkey's rapprochement with Europe. Erdogan is committed to continuing a series of major mega-construction projects, which include one of the world's largest airports and a major canal running through Istanbul.

"The big Turkish projects, if he [Erdogan] is to realize them — he has to cooperate with international financial institutions and international money lenders," Bagci said. "War has destroyed Iraq and Syria. Now is the time for reconstruction, and Europe's support is needed for this."

With Turkey bordering Syria and Iraq, analysts suggest Erdogan sees the reconstruction of its neighbors as offering an opportunity to revitalize the Turkish economy and, in particular, its ailing construction industry.

Erdogan's planned summit later this year with France, Germany, and Russia reportedly is expected to focus on the task of rebuilding Syria.

Human rights concerns

Europe's ongoing concerns over Turkey's human rights record, though, could complicate rapprochement efforts. Under the EU's Copenhagen Criteria as a membership candidate, Turkey is compelled to observe fundamental human rights.

"How are we [Ankara] going to appease Europe, which insists on strict compliance with the Copenhagen criteria?" asked Yesilada. "You cannot simply lock people up for social media postings that you don't like."

Brussels repeatedly has criticized Ankara on human rights, particularly its lack of freedom of expression. In a move this month interpreted as a gesture to Europe, Erdogan ended two years of emergency rule, introduced after the 2016 failed coup.

Critics dismissed the move, pointing out that new legislation passing through parliament includes many of the most severe elements of the emergency rule.

"If Erdogan places more emphasis on better relations with the EU, that may lead to a more tolerant attitude toward dissidents and the opposition," Yesilada said. "But there are conflicting messages. The opposition fears a greater crackdown. I think a continuation of the crackdown is not feasible, given the economic situation and Turkey's tenuous position between West and East."

Strained US ties

Turkey's current strains with Washington also are giving further impetus to Ankara's courting of Europe.

"We will hear more pro-European verbalism from the Turkish foreign desk officers," predicted Council of Europe member Ertugral Kurkcu of the Turkish HDP opposition. "We can see small steps on the migrant issues, the Cyprus issue."

Migration remains a crucial card for dealing with the EU. Turkey is successfully controlling the flow of migrants into Europe as part of a two-year-old deal with Brussels. Turkish cooperation in monitoring returning European jihadis from Syria is seen as vital by Europe's security forces.

Analysts are not predicting that rapprochement with Europe will offer any hope for revitalizing Turkey's EU membership bid. But they say the relationship between the two is likely to be built on transactional initiatives.