Strained EU-Turkey ties, vulnerable Balkans

  • Elisabeth Gheorghe
  • 14.7.2017 17:59

Turkey's worsening relations with Western countries weigh down in the Balkans.

As the G20 summit in Hamburg reached a conclusion, experts warned that Turkey’s deteriorating relations with its allies – including Germany, the EU and U.S. – are leaving their marks on the Balkans, according to Balkan Insight. Sharp rhetoric in recent years has partly contributed to cooling ties, possibly inciting a new move in Turkish foreign policy, from the Western bloc towards Russia. This could have a key impact on both the Balkans and EU, the former of which is also noticeably affected by its own internal economic, political, and social issues, with an already strong Turkish influence.

Following its association agreement with the then-European Community in 1963, Turkey has enjoyed a good relationship with the EU. Brussels has voiced concern over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule and anti-EU rhetoric. The partnership is crucial in not only addressing migration and security but also in encouraging Balkan states in their EU aspirations – along with Ankara’s own EU candidacy. In the event of a rift, EU-Balkan efforts risk being hampered, particularly in states with significant Muslim populations.

The departure of former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the main engineer of Turkey’s Balkan “soft power” engagement, changed relations between Turkey and these states. Erdoğan stopped following Davutoğlu’s blueprint in favour of fostering personal relations with individual Muslim leaders. Accounting Erdoğan’s noted presence in some Balkan states’ domestic affairs, tensions between Ankara, local Muslim communities, and regional authorities surface. Balkan Insight cites an unnamed Turkey expert who says Ankara’s communication with other leaders is limited and Turkey cannot emerge as an alternative to the EU. Given domestic issues, Turkey remains divided under a leadership without clear long-term strategies for its own country and the wider region.

While the Kurdish question overshadows Ankara’s U.S. relations, Turkey remains crucial for NATO and the U.S. – and in turn the Balkans and EU – as it acts as NATO’s southern flank, accommodating the international coalition against ISIS at its bases. Turkey, secular by law, therefore plays a role in counterterrorism efforts. Given its geographical position, Ankara is able to support Brussels in managing flows of migrants, militants and their recruits travelling to and/or from neighbouring Syria, yielding Erdoğan an oft-criticised card in negotiations. Turkey, as a transit state, enjoys a presence in European energy security as well, as a result of the Russia-backed TurkStream gas pipeline and other Western-coordinated gas and oil pipelines. The Cyprus question further complicates matters.

Though, as issues with its old allies and surrounding armed conflicts unfold, observers wonder whether Erdoğan will steer eastwards to a Russo-Eurasian destination, since in times of turbulence Ankara tends to make a turn towards Moscow – a matter that has become increasingly visible since the early 2000s. However, one thing is clear: Turkish foreign policy in its current form has the potential to affect the greater region – including the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, and the EU – since Ankara is focal to many crises in geostrategic terms. After all, the Near East is the Navel of the World.

About author: Elisabeth Gheorghe

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