Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviewing a guard of honour in Istanbul, September 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviewing a guard of honour in Istanbul, September 2017. 
Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace / Handout via REUTERS

The European Union and the United States face a remarkably similar set of challenges in dealing with Turkey. They both have long-standing relationships with Ankara and important interests at stake in the country’s future. Yet the arrangements that have historically anchored each of their respective ties with Turkey—the promise of Turkey’s eventual EU accession and its decades-long military alliance with the United States—no longer seem capable of handling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western stance.

As a result, European and U.S. policymakers are searching for a way forward. Some seek to salvage the status quo, assuaging Erdogan in order to preserve his cooperation. Others, worried that Erdogan is taking advantage of this approach, are looking for new arrangements and sources of leverage over Ankara. On both sides of the Atlantic, diplomatic caution and inertia are gradually giving way in the face of Turkey’s transformation.

If Erdogan’s foreign and domestic political trajectory continues, it will eventually provoke a backlash in Western capitals that will make military and economic cooperation impossible. Rather than allow this to happen haphazardly, Washington and Brussels should work together to clarify in advance that their willingness to work with Turkey requires Erdogan to check his most illiberal and anti-Western tendencies. 

A Turkish army tank in Gaziantep Province, Turkey, August 2016. 
Umit Bektas / REUTERS


The United States has long seen its ties with Turkey from the vantage point of their military alliance, which was formed to contest Soviet power during the Cold War but has survived until the present day. In recent years, however, Washington has begun to question the partnership’s relevance. The war in Syria exposed Washington’s and Ankara’s conflicting interests in the Middle East, where Turkey’s focus on the threat posed by forces linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been at odds with the United States’ focus on the Islamic State, or ISIS. U.S. officials have also grown frustrated with Erdogan’s persistent anti-Americanism and with his government’s arrest and abuse of U.S. citizens.

U.S. officials became belatedly worried about the behavior of Erdogan’s government in 2013, after its crackdown on demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. But it was only in the months after the 2016 coup attempt that the impact of Erdogan’s illiberalism on U.S.-Turkish relations made it a pressing policy concern. High-ranking Turkish officials alleged that Washington had supported the plot to overthrow Erdogan and demanded that Washington immediately extradite Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whom Ankara more plausibly accused of leading the plot. Turkey’s arrest of several Americans in the postcoup purges and an assault this May by Erdogan’s security guards on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington struck U.S. officials and citizens as affronts. In northern Syria, meanwhile, the United States’ support for Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey considers a threat to its own security, escalated tensions further. When a Turkish official warned that Turkish artillery could accidentally hit U.S. forces in May and when a state-run news agency exposed the location of U.S. Special Forces in the region in July, the anger in Washington was acute. Turkey, it seemed, was turning from an undependable ally in managing the Middle East’s challenges into something of a challenge itself.

For a variety of reasons, however, few in the U.S. government have been ready to risk losing Turkey’s friendship entirely. The historic weight of Turkey’s alliance with the United States, its regional influence, and its capacity to derail other U.S. interests have led officials to conclude that, one way or another, the bilateral relationship must remain functional. Like that of former President Barack Obama, the administration of Donald Trump has therefore sought other means to placate Turkish anger over the United States’ ongoing support for Kurdish forces in Syria. In addition to offering intelligence about PKK targets outside of Syria, the administration has muted its criticism of Turkey’s democratic decline and continues to offer Erdogan public meetings with the U.S. president.

Yet over the past year, many in Washington have begun to fear that this policy of assuaging Erdogan is actually a form of appeasing him. Erdogan’s provocations have heightened the appeal of a more assertive response, and policymakers have increasingly wondered whether standing up to Turkey would let them regain the upper hand in the relationship. If Erdogan knows that he needs the United States, the thinking goes, Washington can take a tougher line with him and secure more cooperative behavior. The Council on Foreign Relations scholar Steven Cook captured this sentiment in public testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “The political, economic, and diplomatic pressure that Russia brought to bear on Turkey after Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian bomber in November 2015 is instructive,” Cook said on September 6. “In time, Erdogan was compelled to issue an apology and pursue a conciliatory approach to Moscow.”

As Washington and Brussels move to increase the pressure on Turkey, they should keep their goals realistic and their rhetoric restrained.

Indeed, over the past month, Congress has seemed eager to push the administration toward a tougher line with Turkey. A bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would restrict weapons sales to Erdogan’s security guards and ban Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful detention of U.S. citizens from entering the country. More recently, Ben Cardin, Democratic senator of Maryland, wrote a letter to the administration arguing that Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia would trigger further sanctions against Turkey.

The U.S. legal system has also responded to Turkey's behavior. In August, a federal grand jury charged 15 of Erdogan’s bodyguards in connection with the violence outside the ambassador’s residence. The next month, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York indicted one of Erdogan’s former cabinet ministers for conspiring to undermine U.S. sanctions against Iran. Although these measures may not have been intended to send a message to Erdogan, he has certainly taken them that way and has said that he wants to address the issue in his upcoming meeting with Trump.


In the meantime, the European Union continues to have its own problems with Turkey. The country became a candidate for EU membership in 1999 and started negotiations to join the bloc in 2005. Since then, its progress toward accession has ground to a halt, thanks mostly to the collapse of the reform process in Turkey and the fact that many in Europe never wanted to see Turkey as a member in the first place. Both sides now seem to understand that there is no success in sight. Last December, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding motion calling for a temporary freeze of accession talks. And earlier this month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority. This rules out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future.”

Like the United States, the EU is troubled by the path that Turkey’s government has taken. But the need for Turkish cooperation on issues such as migration, terrorism, and energy, among others, makes the costs of breaking with Turkey seem higher than those of maintaining the status quo. Following this logic, a number of European leaders—including French President Emmanuel Macron and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini—have called for continuing EU accession talks with Turkey. There are two main reasons for this thinking. First, ending the negotiations would require a unanimous vote from the EU member states, and it would be embarrassing if such a vote failed. More important, some officials worry that if the current framework is abolished without a replacement, it would strip the EU of the little leverage it still holds over Turkey and break Europe’s connections with Turkish democrats who seek closer ties with the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017.

Yet amid rising public anger against Turkey, some European leaders, particularly in Germany, have come to see this support for the status quo view as naive. Moreover, the EU’s credibility as a force for responsible governance suffers when it does not speak up against breaches of the rule of law and violations of basic freedoms. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the lead in pushing for a tougher line against Erdogan, saying in a televised debate with Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party,  that “Turkey should not become an EU member.” Some of Merkel’s forceful rhetoric is meant for domestic consumption ahead of Germany’s September election, but it also reflects a real frustration with Ankara. The Turkish government has taken a number of steps that have provoked fury in Berlin: refusing to allow German members of the Bundestag to visit German soldiers on NATO bases in Turkey, requesting investigations of German companies operating in Turkey for possible links to Gulen, and detaining German citizens on flimsy pretexts. Erdogan has put a personal touch on these provocations, telling Turks in Germany not to vote for any of the mainstream parties in the upcoming election (calling them “enemies of Turkey”) and, more dramatically, saying that Germany’s present-day policies are ”no different from those of the Nazi period.”

One proposal for putting the European-Turkish relationship on a new footing is to modernize the EU-Turkey Customs Union—a step that could improve the economic relationship between the two. Yet even this potential compromise could fall victim to deteriorating relations. In the lead-up to the German elections, Merkel has also threatened to oppose a revised customs union because of Erdogan’s behavior (she has the support of many in the European Parliament). That may have been an attempt to remind Erdogan that he needs the customs union more than Europe does.


How forceful the United States and the EU will be with Turkey remains to be seen. If Western officials take a hard line against Erdogan, it could eventually produce a strained but acceptable modus vivendi, in which Erdogan refrains from provoking the West while still benefiting from mutual ties. Alternatively, attempts to get tough with Turkey could set off a downward spiral of countermeasures, leading to a break in the country’s relationship with the West. Turkish and Western leaders would have good reason to pull back before that point, but domestic politics and strong emotions could override their caution.  

Washington has historically delegated the responsibility of dealing with Turkey’s democratization to the European Union, but the EU now looks more unwilling and unable to take on that task than ever before. By now, it should be clear on both sides of the Atlantic that turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies will guarantee neither stability nor cooperation.

Liberal democracy may not lie in Turkey’s immediate future, but Turkey’s Western partners can still help the country escape the most damaging consequences of authoritarianism. Without threatening to abandon or isolate Turkey, the United States and Europe should make it clear that they will significantly scale down important forms of military and economic cooperation if Turkey continues to move in a dangerous direction. Transatlantic coordination on subjects such as arms sales and the future of Incirlik Air Base, a site used by the U.S. Air Force, would make these warnings more credible. Washington and Brussels should highlight the risks that Turkish policies pose for foreign tourists and investors, and Brussels can make it clear that a modernized customs union will not be possible without the rule of law in Turkey. European and U.S. leaders should pair such pressure with calls for specific measures–ending the state of emergency, releasing jailed journalists, easing the crackdown on Kurdish politicians–that could help stabilize Turkey’s political situation. They should also lay down joint redlines in their bilateral relations with Ankara, making clear that Turkey’s excessively accusatory rhetoric and the arrest of foreign citizens as hostages must not become habitual.

Such an approach would be most effective if European and U.S. leaders resist the temptation to accompany it with overly self-righteous rhetoric. The United States and Europe also bear considerable responsibility for the impasse they find themselves in—not only for having turned a blind eye to Turkey’s democratic decline before but also for their dismissive treatment of Turkey’s EU candidacy and its vital interests in Syria.

In short, as Washington and Brussels move to increase the pressure on Turkey, they should keep their goals realistic and their rhetoric restrained. This would minimize the risk of a dangerous backlash from Ankara and maximize the chances of resetting Turkey’s relations with the West on sustainable, mutually beneficial terms. 

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  • NICK DANFORTH is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Project. ILKE TOYGUR is an Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and an Adjunct Professor at University Carlos III of Madrid. 
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