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Paris talks unlikely to reverse Turkey / EU tensions

Paris talks unlikely to reverse Turkey / EU tensions

President Erdogan is due to arrive in Paris on 05 January for talks with French President Macron to discuss bilateral ties and the Middle East. Erdogan and his ministers have over recent weeks extended an olive branch to Europe, with the president stating in December that Turkey wanted to have good relations with EU countries.

Verisk Maplecroft however does not expect a full reversal in fraught Turkish-EU relations this year, not least because of Ankara’s ongoing demands for the extradition from Europe of alleged members of the Gulen opposition movement. Berlin and Brussels are extremely unlikely to accommodate Turkey’s extradition requests given the lack of incriminating evidence against the asylum seekers.

Expanded customs union underpins Ankara’s thinking

But Ankara still has an incentive to improve relations with key EU member states to the extent that it would help facilitate talks for an expanded customs union. Despite registering impressive economic growth in the second half of 2017, the fiscal buffer of the Turkish economy has weakened. Turkey needs to address its exposure to hot money which accounts for an estimated 50% of the current account.

Boosting Turkish exports to Europe and inbound European FDI would help reduce Turkey’s exposure to capital flight and the size of the current account deficit, estimated at almost 5% of GDP in September 2017. Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said in January that Turkey is aiming to increase exports to USD 170 billion in 2018, from USD 157.1 billion in 2017.

Perception is key

By extension, Erdogan may be seeking to increase his domestic brownie points in the run-up to local, general and national elections which could well be moved from 2019 to 2018. While Erdogan does not have the ability or intention to win over the large segment of the population who avidly oppose his polarising rule, extending an olive branch to Europe could help generate confidence in the economy. Positive overtures will also raise hopes among Turks that they will eventually no longer face prohibitive visa restrictions to enter Europe – an emotive issue at home.

Turkey is extremely unlikely to join the European Union over the next two decades at least, but public perceptions of the EU as a regional organisation are still more positive in Turkey than many outsiders realise. The results of a survey released by Turkey’s Economic Development Foundation (IKV) in December 2017 revealed that 78.9% of Turks support Turkey joining the EU, although merely 31.2% believe it will happen.

Mending fences with many planks

In addition to expanding trade and foreign investment, Turkey and EU states would do well to build relations on such mutual interests as energy security, migration, counter-terrorism and regional stability while de-emphasising issues over which they disagree such as human rights and governance.

Developments on the international stage can also offer an opportunity to narrow bilateral rifts. Vocal support from Berlin and Paris for the Palestinians following President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was applauded by Ankara and has to a certain extent helped reduce tensions with Germany.

Feel the squeeze and lash out

But Erdogan’s penchant for attacking European politicians when it serves his short-term domestic interests to do so means that a détente could be scuppered or reversed.

The US and Israel are the favoured targets for the Turkish government these days, but challenging and criticising Europe has over recent years helped Erdogan project Turkey as a fiercely independent, regional power which will not be lectured to by the West. Macron will raise human rights violations in Turkey during Erdogan’s visit – a theme which the Turkish president will at a minimum brush off.

Developing a positive rapport and enhanced relationship with Paris is one thing, doing so with EU heavyweight Berlin – which Erdogan has savaged in 2017 - will prove more difficult. Ankara’s decision in December to release three German nationals from detention signal Turkey’s desire to ameliorate relations, but will not be sufficient. Over 40 other Germans are being held on trumped up charges and Berlin has demanded their release.

Until Ankara makes serious concessions, Berlin is very unlikely to end its opposition to an expanded customs union with Turkey. And so long as Berlin and other capitals in Europe fail to give Ankara some slack, so the risk of Erdogan resorting once again to confrontation persists. Although Ankara would like to mend fences with the EU, the conditions for another crisis remain.

They include a deep well of resentment among Turkish policy makers, severe tensions with Greek Cyprus and Greece over offshore exploration around Cyprus and fears among European politicians that a more accommodating approach to Erdogan could play into the hands of the far right.

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