How EU sanctions on Turkey reveal a divided Europe

How EU sanctions on Turkey reveal a divided Europe
Analysis: With new power blocs emerging within Europe, the future of EU-Turkey ties, and the union itself, could be at stake.
6 min read
15 December, 2020
The EU has drawn up a list of Turkish targets for sanctions. [Getty]
After the European Council meeting last week, which resulted in the imposition of limited economic sanctions on Ankara following Greek, Cypriot and French pressure, it could be said that the European Union (EU) is going through a difficult period. 

The course of Brexit is indefinite and the rise of France through attempts by its president to lead the European scene confirm that the union is shaken, with the coming year decisive for its future.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently celebrated Azerbaijan's victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a win with significant geopolitical benefits for Ankara. At the same time, however, Turkey's domestic economic conditions continue to deteriorate and Erdogan must now face a US administration that is sceptical of him and what he represents for the new Turkey that is emerging regionally and internationally

The decision by EU leaders to impose limited, and likely ineffective, sanctions on Turkey sends a negative message to Ankara by pushing it to pursue divergent paths: either diversify its policy in the Eastern Mediterranean to a more diplomatic one - or become more aggressive.

In the days leading up to the EU summit the Greek government pursued two tracks. The first was exercising immense diplomatic and public relations pressure on the EU by raising its demands and stressing the urgency of stopping European arms sales to Ankara and even curtailing trade ties. 

EU sanctions send a negative message to Turkey: either diversify policy in the Eastern Mediterranean or become more aggressive

The second was to hold Berlin fully responsible for Turkish measures concerning the Mediterranean and Cyprus by warning that not imposing sanctions could lead to a rupture within the European family. 

In this context, Athens believes that the EU under its current German leadership is no longer a source of confidence for the Greek government, which sees its recent alliances with Paris and other neighbouring countries - Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates - as an alternative to dealing with Ankara, either in the Aegean or on the issue of Cyprus. This strategy, however, was not "made in Athens", but rather a French plan conceived by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Read more: Biden and the Eastern Mediterranean: Greek
optimism, Turkish caution

In November 2018, Macron said it was necessary to create what he called a "true European army" to defend the old continent from three world powers, namely China, Russia and the United States.

At the time, this was perceived as a reaction to the provocative statements of US President Donald Trump against his European allies. However, observing the details of Macron's statements since then, it's clear that it was part of a grander French strategy.

The French president is trying to present France as a global power again, a goal that cannot be achieved within NATO with the presence of the US and Turkey, which are more powerful militarily. Nor can it be implemented within the EU, which Paris cannot lead in the presence of the economically stronger Germany. So, the solution is to form a new alliance which Macron will personally lead to present France as a new superpower.

Along these lines, Paris seeks to lead the so-called EuroMed7, an alliance of seven Southern European Union member states, and create a rift within the body of the European Union, making it seem insufficient enough to be supplanted by a new alliance. This is exactly the role of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' government. His recent actions are aimed at showing that Berlin's role in the EU is negative, and to create divisions.

Macron is trying to present France as a global power again, a goal that cannot be achieved within NATO or the EU

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the question now is how Ankara could respond to EU sanctions. Erdogan knows with certainty that any retreat at this time or self-restraint would limit Ankara and Northern Cyprus from benefitting from emerging energy developments in the region, as other countries led by Egypt and Israel also compete to succeed.

In this sense, economic sanctions, regardless of their intensity or extent, will not force Turkey to retreat, but rather will push it to further escalation. With the new sanctions, it is likely that Ankara will maintain the same policy in the Aegean Sea, confirming its presence and rejecting any maps or agreements that do not fit with its position on maritime zones. 

Read more: Aegean angst: Greece and Turkey's dangerous Eastern Mediterranean game

The attempt by some to link EU measures and the atmosphere in the Eastern Mediterranean to recent US sanctions is unrealistic. US sanctions are part of another issue completely unrelated to the Eastern Mediterranean, as discussions between Ankara and Washington over S-400s continue and are likely to go on during the Biden era.

Erdogan's statement that the "EU summit did not meet the expectations of some countries because their demands were not rightful, while some reasonable EU countries thwarted this game against Turkey by showing a positive attitude", accurately reflects Turkey's current relations with the EU, which have changed dramatically in the last five years. 

Economic sanctions, regardless of their intensity or extent, will not force Turkey to retreat, but rather will push it to further escalation

In fact, Ankara's relations with some European countries, such as Spain, Italy and Malta, have been extended to strategic, economic, military and geopolitical cooperation, which makes Turkey important to them, far removed from  the position of other countries such as Greece and France, who see Turkey as a strategic threat to their influence. As long as trade between Turkey and EU countries makes it an important market, economic sanctions will not have a significant impact on Euro-Turkish relations.

Read more: France and Turkey's growing rivalry in the
Middle East

On both shores of the Aegean, the atmosphere of anticipation and tension will not diminish with these latest EU measures. Keeping all options open has become a necessity for the Greek side. Athens, which has built its international strategy on the basis of hostility with Ankara, will not accept a political solution or negotiations that will end the conflict because it will make it less important to its new allies in Abu Dhabi and Paris.

On the Turkish coast, on the other hand, an agreement with Athens is not possible without a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue that will protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots in energy revenues. In the midst of all this, events on both sides of the Aegean are increasingly becoming a  German matter, but the European ground is gradually turning into a quagmire of obstacles. 

Will Berlin, and in particular Chancellor Angela Merkel, be able to keep the EU together on the one hand and Euro-Turkish relations within acceptable limits on the other, or will these cracks further widen? The coming months will be important not only for the European Union's relations with Turkey, but for the future of the EU itself.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_