The Equation in Turkey-EU-USA Relations

By Fatma Yılmaz-Elmas

There are opinions, suggestions and discussions on the fact that 2013 has been and should be a crucial in terms of Turkey-EU relations. New era is regarded as a new opportunity to revitalize relations between Turkey and the EU which have been stable for a long period of time. Public opinion, based on both the transfer of the helm of EU term-presidency from Greek Cypriots to Ireland and leader change in Southern Cyprus as well as the promises of some politicians such as Hollande giving green light to the opening of new negotiation chapter, is dominated by the opinion and expectation of occurrence of new parameters in relations. In this regard, furthermore, the possible revival of relations with the EU may have Turkey empowered in the face of developments in its region. The possibility of conducting this interaction in the opposite direction is of course another issue at stake. Turkey to provide a unique opportunity as being an effective partner in its region to the EU, which couldn’t play first chair in international politics as far as the desired extent, is something which may increase the glamour regarding the revival of bilateral relations.  


However, it is obvious that a driving factor or power is needed for the implementation of the subject of mutual balance in Turkey-EU relations. Yet Turkey, as Nathalie Tocci indicated, is far beyond just being a foreign policy issue. While the preferences of member states are bringing pressure on policies and interests, and dynamism in relations, the aspect of relations facing the potential of (regional) cooperation becomes insistently obsolete. Hence, while the constructive role and support of the third actors such as the US regarding Turkey-EU relations is important, in fact, it uncovers an equation which has been around since the beginning.


The US role in EU integration


Among the reasons designed the European integration following the Second World War, the existence of political and economic reasons, as well as an intellectually matured historical background, is almost known by everyone. The political confusion and economic weakness of Europe, which was greatly devastated with the war, is of paramount importance, so as the impact of environmental factors which mobilized the dynamics of integration. The intention of political actors with vested interest in the creation of a new order in the Western Europe can be evaluated within the scope of these factors. In this context, the US has the prominent position among the political actors with intentions such as incorporating Western Germany into anti-Soviet alliance based on the Soviet threat and reinvigorating the economy of Western Germany on behalf of ensuring the sustainability of its dynamic economy. Due to this reason, the US pulled Europe into a plan to push for the pursuit of regional integration through the aid under Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. Indeed, aggregation of countries to establish the European Economic Cooperation Organization who wished to take advantage of the Marshall Plan was an indication that the plan served the purpose. 


By 1953, the US support to European integration, which had already diplomatically recognized European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), constituted a case of phenomenon in the more advanced stages of the integration. The US support as an effective means of ensuring political stability and promoting the welfare in Western Europe continued in different channels in the 1970 and 1980s. According to Michael Smith, the acceleration of institutional reforms increased the EU’s ability to act as an equal partner vis-a-vis on certain issue areas such as trade, environment and competition. This was also important in terms of strengthening multilateralism in international politics with regards to these issues. By the 1990s, it is likely to talk about the attempt to gain the EU a new vision on security and defense areas. With the incentive of establishing European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) autonomous from NATO but congruent with it, the US gave a particular acceleration to European integration. Even though, to a large extent, the idea behind this transatlantic support was to offload the burden that the US had undertaken in the field of European security during the Cold War, ESDP is amongst developments defined as “a value-added strengthening the economic and diplomatic facilities” in terms of the EU integration.


Today, “Europe in crisis” still has its former importance for the US. Mainly because transatlantic economic relations have an important place in the world market both in terms of the volume of exchanges and institutional arrangements. As Müftüler-Bac stresses, a strong and unified Europe undoubtedly strengthens the transatlantic economic ties by offering American firms and investors a large, open market with which to trade and in which to invest. Thus, the ongoing support of the US who was in search of “an economically alive Europe” in the years of establishment is still perpetual with similar concerns in order to keep the European integration alive. 


Related to the analysis based on years of the role of the US in European integration, Bruce Carolan is one of those having the thesis that the US has actually contributed more to the creation of the modern EU structuring than Britain who got involved in integration in the 1970s. 


Searching for the US in Turkey-EU relations


A similar thesis of Carolan’s study comparing the US-British roles in European integration has been put forward within the framework of the course of Turkey-EU relations and the support given to this relationship. Philip Gordon and Ömer Taspinar are only two of those stating that in European journey with full of obstacles, Turkey’s goal of full membership to the EU is much more unconditionally supported by the US. Tocci is one of the best abbreviators of American support based almost entirely on consensus for Turkey’s EU membership. In this regard, Turkey’s EU membership perspective seems as a reflection of dominant vision of the US on European integration. So, Turkey easily fit the picture of the US vision of Europe. Even there were skeptical approaches to the subject in some periods such as George W. Bush; it is a fact that the idea of Turkey within Europe “as a transatlantic sound” has always outweighed in the cost calculation. In addition to being regarded as an important object of the strategic cooperation, the US prefers a European Turkey in the promotion stage of EU-NATO co-operation and, moreover, heading of Turkey towards Europe. 


Above all, the EU is seen as a strategic project by the US in terms of of transatlantic alliance. Taken into account that the dominant perspective of Turkey and its region in the US are strategic, the parallel nature of the US support given to the development of European integration and Turkey’s EU membership becomes evident. Therefore, “perspective of the loss of Turkey to the EU” occurred in the aftermath of circumstances, such as tezkere crisis of 2003 (parliamentary bill crisis), is in the minority. Also, there is a strong belief that Turkey which has become more democratic with the encouragement of EU reforms will develop and deepen bilateral relations with the US.


In this regard, the US reveals its opinion about Turkey’s EU journey sometimes in the form of direct intervention and support, sometimes through some of the speeches addressed to the international community and sometimes through the method of silent diplomacy. For instance, following the 1997 Luxemburg decision where Turkey wasn’t mentioned among candidate countries, the US exercised direct and indirect pressure on the EU to have the decision reviewed. In fact, it is often illustrated that the US authorities, between the decisions of December 1997 and December 1999 where candidate status were given, never muffed a chance on making suggestions to their European colleagues. Even though the phone calls directly made between President Clinton and Ecevit, Turkish PM in that period, and Bush, on the other hand, with the EU leaders occasionally resulted in backlashing approaches, these are the results of unconditional support given by the US to Turkey’s EU perspective. 


Maintaining the balance


In this context, it is apparent that there has to be a fragile balance in Turkey-EU-US relations. That doesn’t only have a vital role for relatively improving the thorny structure of Turkey-EU relations, but also, as Ziya Önis and Suhnaz Yilmaz stress, for both the establishment and development of balanced relations with the US, and Turkey to play more constructive role as a “soft regional power” in the Middle East. Önis and Yilmaz consider that a passive “wait and see” attitude based on a vague notion of ‘geo-strategic importance’ in regional context will not be very helpful to Turkey. Hence, what required is to pursue an active strategy designed for the improvement of relations with the EU and the US, and this is mostly related to the dynamics of the transatlantic relations in the international scene. 


However, easily undermining the potential cooperation in the interest of both sides in relations with the US can sometimes damage the setting of balance. Thus, during the visit of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Turkey, the agenda unfortunately got stuck on Israel and it was almost an example of compelling this balance. Though, depending on the nature of the role undertaken in collaboration with a powerful ally in its region, the efficiency of Turkish foreign policy has potential to have a positive reflection on relations with the EU. Likewise, due to the divergences and institutional confusion, the EU couldn’t play the desired leadership role in foreign policy and therefore as a foreign policy actor, stemming from the problem of “expectation-capability gap”, its image has been tarnished in the presence of international community. Substitution of this gap by the activism of Turkish foreign policy has been an important long-standing opportunity on behalf of the revitalization of Turkey-EU relations. Accordingly, it is crucial for Turkey to balance its relations with the EU against that of the US and vice versa, and this issue therefore deserves more than the present discussions.