Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of two senior Turkish officials who have made or are making trips to European Union countries in what analysts say is a diplomatic offensive to reset relations with the 28-member bloc.
The EU is Turkey’s No. 1 import and export partner. Relations between Ankara and the EU, however, have been strained in part over human rights in Turkey, a controversial referendum last year to extend his powers, refugee migration and Turkey’s quest for visa-free travel for its citizens across the EU.
Erdogan met Friday in France with counterpart Emmanuel Macron for talks on Syria and trade, and he signed a series of contracts. The two presidents also witnessed the signing of an agreement in which Turkish Airlines will purchase 25 jets from Airbus.
In a recent interview, Macron confirmed he regularly speaks with Erdogan, conversations that analysts say the Turkish president values. “The steps we have taken until now with Mr. Macron are all in the right direction and I have a lot of hopes in Mr. Macron,” Erdogan said to reporters before leaving for Paris.
Message from Kalin
Turkey has been seeking to join the European Union but cannot do so unless certain criteria required for membership have been met. Ahead of the Paris visit, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, speaking to the France 24 news channel, sent a message to the EU: “As Turkey, we see EU membership as a strategic aim; however, in recent years, not much progress has been made in this regard, due to several reasons. We want to overcome these troubles.”
Ankara’s ongoing crackdown following a failed coup in 2016 has resulted in tens of thousands of arrests and the jailing of dozens of people, including journalists. The crackdown threatens the collapse of the troubled relations with the EU.
Ahead of Erdogan’s visit, Macron offered thinly veiled criticism of Turkey. “Freedom of the press is not only being damaged in dictatorships but also in some democratic European states as well,” he told reporters.
Human rights concerns are set to be an even bigger obstacle to Ankara’s bid to smooth over relations with Europe’s other major powerhouse, Germany. German-Turkish relations all but collapsed last year over Ankara’s accusations that Berlin was harboring hundreds of people linked to a 2016 coup attempt. Berlin, meanwhile, has likened the arrest and jailing of a number of its citizens, including two journalists and a human rights activist, to hostage taking.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is scheduled to visit his German counterpart, Sigma Gabriel, on Saturday in Goslar, Germany.
“Both sides have an interest in a new start in the bilateral relationship as we live in a time full of challenges,” Cavusoglu wrote this week in an op-ed piece for a German newspaper. “It is not the time for bullhorn diplomacy.”
Following a surprise meeting between the Turkish and German foreign ministers in November at the Turkish Mediterranean Sea resort of Antalya, both sides have started to take tentative steps to ease tensions. Three Germans being detained have been released. Deniz Yucel, a journalist for German newspaper Die Welt, remains incarcerated, although his conditions have improved with the ending of months of solitary confinement.
‘Very difficult’ path ahead
Despite such steps, experts warn Ankara faces a protracted process in improving relations with the EU.
“It will be very difficult to bring normalcy to Turkish-German relations,” said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
The release of Yucel is seen by analysts as key by Berlin to any substantive progress. Erdogan has previously said that as long as he remains in power, Yucel will never be free.
Given its growing isolation, however, Turkey could be set to make more gestures to Europe.
Turkey faces a similar situation with its other key Western ally, the United States. Until now, Ankara has been happy to look to Moscow to send the message that Ankara can do without its traditional allies. But growing dependence on Moscow is coming at an increasing cost.
“Russia is the leading engine, and Turkey is the wagon of the Russian policy,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “Unfortunately at the moment, Turkey is just doing and repeating what Russia is saying. So Turkey is very strongly under the influence of Russia, which has never been the case in the last 25 years.”
While Ankara has found some common ground with Moscow in the region, the countries are historical rivals, as is the case with Iran, another country with whom Turkey has started to develop warming relations.
“Turkey and Iran have issues that could flare up anytime,” said political columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website.
Observers say Ankara now could be realizing the precarious situation it is facing and a realization of the need for a more balanced diplomatic approach. They say the cost could be high, with European countries expected to press for an easing up on the crackdown.