In the wake of Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden announced in May 2022 their intention to join NATO. These historic bids had encountered tough opposition from Turkey as it accused the two Nordic countries of harboring people with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara has labeled as a ‘terrorist group’. As an additional condition for its support, Turkey also demanded that both countries end their “arms embargoes” against Ankara. They did not officially ban the export of military equipment to Turkey, but neither country has issued export licenses after Ankara had launched a ground offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in 2019. However, last year, Sweden and Finland signed a trilateral memorandum with Turkey in a bid to address its concerns. As a result, only Finland managed to secure Ankara’s ratification of its NATO membership earlier this year. Sweden, by contrast, continued to face Turkey’s opposition until Erdogan announced at the NATO summit in Vilnius that Ankara would back its bid to join the alliance. But prior to this move, he said that Brussels should clear the path for Ankara’s accession to the European Union before his country approved Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. Could this sudden link of Sweden’s NATO bid to Turkey joining the EU be the real motive behind Ankara’s initial stance towards the two countries? If significant, how does this motive help understand the dynamics of Turkey’s positions within the alliance? And what are its implications for the alliance’s future?
Erdogan’s turnaround in Sweden’s NATO bid
Apart from signing the trilateral agreement, Sweden made some significant efforts to address Ankara’s concerns. These efforts range from extraditing a PKK supporter to initiating investigations against terrorism financing and working with Turkish law enforcement agencies in order to keep track of the activities of people with ties to PKK in Sweden. Despite these efforts, Turkey was still holding off on Sweden’s membership until Erdogan brought out another card by urging his allies to “first, come and open the way for Turkey at the European Union and then we will open the way for Sweden, just as we did for Finland”. This can be seen as a strategic blackmail to which Erdogan is accustomed as he quickly changed his mind and announced his support for Sweden after he is said to have gotten some assurances from US on F-16s, and Canada on arms embargoes. According to Middle East Eye, Ankara’s deal with the US included “40 new aircraft and kits to overhaul 79 of Turkey’s existing F-16 fleet, as well as 900 air-to-air missiles and 800 bombs.” Canada has not yet decided to drop its export controls measures against Turkey, but agrees to reopen talks that can lead to their lift. While these assurances are quite important to Ankara, they are far from being its target goal. And the quick turnaround in Sweden’s membership proves that terrorism issues might not be the real motive behind Turkey’s objection from the beginning. What Turkey wanted was to bring to light its accession issues with the EU, even if it did not demand an immediate restart of membership talks (which have stalled since 2018) in return for Sweden’s accession.
In other words, what Turkey was likely trying to imply, but had not admitted from the outset, is that it could not accept Finland and Sweden into NATO unless it got concessions commensurate with the frustration it ‘feels’ about its stalled EU membership. And the reason why Ankara did not raise this motive at the very beginning of its opposition to the two countries is that, by doing so, it would risk not being taken seriously or not being able to obtain concessions from different parties. According to a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Asli Aydintasbas as reported by The Wall Street Journal, “Whether that is something Europeans give, something the U.S. gives, or Sweden gives, my sense is Erdogan will not let this go without getting something in return”. Even a Swedish member of Parliament, Amineh Kakabaveh, seemed to have made sense of Ankara’s motive by declaring in 2022 that “Erdogan wants to have contact with Biden. He wants to have contact with EU countries”. What Ankara would also fear in prematurely advancing this real motive at the very beginning is that it would get reactions disavowing it or rendering its concern illegitimate, such as those (after Erdogan’s previous statement) from Dana Spinant, spokesperson for the European Commission, who declared that “you cannot link the two processes”, or NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who stressed that Turkey’s relationship with the EU was “not an issue for NATO, it’s an issue for the European Union”. So, if Ankara ended up playing the EU card without fear of any reaction, it was because it had made progress in its negotiations with the US to obtain concessions on the F16s, and it would have been necessary to evoke this motive to make these negotiations more conclusive. That is, Turkey has made the strategic choice of first highlighting its concerns about terrorism and the arms embargoes in a bid to obtain concessions first from Finland and Sweden through their trilateral memorandum, and from the US and Canada, before returning to the real motive which is its EU membership issues. Ankara has even made Sweden show ‘support’ for “efforts to reinvigorate Turkey’s EU accession process, including modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union and visa liberalisation”. But how might Ankara’s initial objection be rooted in a sort of frustration that it had been encountering in its relations with the West and/or the EU?
Turkey’s longstanding western vocation and frustration
Turkey’s encounter with the West if not fruitless, is yet to be profitable. In fact, China and Russia have surpassed the United States and European Union in securing the sympathy of Turkish people according to a poll carried out by Metropoll in January 2022. Even in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, another poll showed in March that 33.7 % of Turks believe Russia was responsible for the war while 48.3% hold the US and NATO responsible. This fact could be a result of the anti-Western sentiment that reigns in the country. The rise of this sentiment was attributed to Erdogan’s anti-Western narratives presenting the West as plotting against the country. Meanwhile, the question of Turkey’s westernization, especially its accession to the EU, remains a major goal for the Turkish public and political elites. According to Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Turkish people retain their strong support for EU accession. The support of public opinion is the real driving force behind our reform efforts.” It would benefit most young Turks to see Turkey join the EU. For some of them, this integration into the EU—if complemented by membership into the Schengen area—is an important solution to unemployment in the country as they could go to the Schengen countries of the Union offering better job opportunities without visas. The process of Turkey’s EU membership is longer for many reasons, mostly due to follow-on domestic legislation that must be passed after initial reforms, and this is paradoxically a barrier to the integration. Moreover, it might understandably be expected from some EU members such as France and Germany to not want Turkey in the EU as it would possibly oppose bids to promote their political preferences. Another reason is that some EU countries might consider blocking Turkey’s accession to protect their economy from ‘cheap labor’. But when one knows that Turkey has officially applied for EU membership since 1987, the wait and uncertainty are likely to create frustration.
This frustration can be a key element in understanding the reason behind Turkey’s initial stance towards Sweden and Finland, which are not the direct target. Turkey is instrumentalizing the two countries’ membership to get more more attention and concessions from the West and/or NATO who neglect the Turkish national (security) interests. For instance, Turkey has faced opposition from some western countries and/or NATO allies on key issues related to its EU accession, maritime disputes with Greece, conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, etc. Another goal associated with the Turkish attempt to block the two Nordic countries was obtaining US concessions, particularly, the purchase of fighter jets including the F35 program of which it was kicked out. All these developments have shaped Turkey’s existing competitive foreign policy in a way that seriously impacts its relations with the West and its NATO allies.
And as far as these competitive ambitions are concerned, they are essentially rooted in a ‘neo-ottoman’ vision. Far from being an illusion, this vision might be another way to believe that a modern Turkey reflecting the glory of Ottoman empire is still possible. Since the 2000s, Ankara has been improving its economic, diplomatic, and socio-cultural influence across the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Latin America, Central Asia, Africa, etc. This rise in global influence constitutes a change of direction from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s efforts, which were mainly aimed at institutionalizing a modern Turkey embedded in a “western” value system. By contrast, over recent years, Turkey has affirmed its engagement in its middle eastern environment with the restoration of its relations with Arab states. The making of this ‘neo-ottoman’ engagement in Turkish foreign policy can be imputed to the ‘islamist’ identity of Erdogan’s ruling party as well as some insights put forward by Ahmet Davutoğlu, a scholar who became Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-2014), then Prime Minister (2014-2016). His 2001 book titled “Strategic Depth” continues to shape Turkey’s foreign policy even if he is more moderate than Erdogan and no more part of the regime. Davutoğlu proposed an expansion of Turkish influence all over the world, most especially, across previous areas of the Ottoman empire’s influence. He wanted to make Turkey regain prominence and possess a pivotal position in the international system worthy of its glory days of the Ottoman empire. He also wanted Turkey to consider the Middle East as its sphere of influence to gradually assert itself as a major power in the international political arena. This foreign policy trajectory while helping Turkey realize its loss of the Cold War era-alike enthusiasm with the West, emboldens Ankara to embark on a competitive and almost no-negotiation approach with its western allies. Ankara can acquire the necessary capabilities in a bid to advance its agenda as in the case of its acquisition of the Russian S400. Thus, the West and/or NATO must rethink their relationship with Turkey to avoid risk of a potential Trojan horse within the alliance.
The rehabilitation of Turkish-Western/European relations: an opportunity for a more allied Turkey within NATO
Despite some of its controversial positions, Turkey remains a crucial member of NATO not only as far its geographic potentialities are concerned but also when it comes to its ability to cooperate with the alliance’s ‘rivals’. It is important for NATO allies to not lose sight on the incredible asset that Turkey might be in enabling the alliance to engage and achieve potential negotiation or cooperation with some countries such as Russia, Iran, etc. It is worth emphasizing the role Turkey played alongside the UN in signing the agreement on the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, a prowess that the West or NATO might not have achieved because of its clear stance in the Russian-Ukrainian war. That said, the West or NATO allies including Canadian foreign policymakers must rethink their relationship with Turkey in a way that priority is given to the pursuit of compromise and mutual commitment with Ankara. The reorientation of this relationship also implies the address of any relevant and necessary concern that might trigger Turkey’s discontent within the alliance. This can clear the path for some sort of equity that helps Ankara meet some of its interests and essentially reignite more positive sentiments towards NATO and/or the West. That is, European allies’ support in this change of course will be very important for the West and/or NATO to avoid five more years of tensions with Erdogan’s regime.
The same applies to Turkey as the EU has serious concerns about the continuing deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary, which Ankara has yet to address. Turkey must take advantage of a reorientation of its relations with the West to improve its current reputation and boost Western investors’ confidence in its battered economy so that it can be able to speed its EU accession process and gain more attention from its fellow NATO allies, especially, the European ones. This also implies a need to show good faith and be more cooperative than competitive within the alliance.
This research was supported by a grant from the “Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS)” programme of the Department of National Defence of Canada.