The Problem With the EU’s “carrot and stick” approach to Turkey

President Erdogan visits Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on the 97th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

On September 4th, European Council President Charles Michel said the EU was working on a new policy to Turkey which would focus more on a “sticks and carrots”. In other words, the use of incentives and punitive measures to discipline Turkish policy makers to be more pliant as far as European interests are concerned.

This approach by EU leaders to Turkey is nothing new, with many pundits and government officials repeatedly referring to it. Nigar Goksel, Turkey Director for the International Crisis Group, lamented the fact that President Erdogan was apparently bullying “Brussels with sticks”, as she wondered if it had any “any carrots to dangle.” More recently she said “The E.U. doesn’t have any carrots to offer Turkey that would override nationalist sentiments” which for her explained Ankara’s recent foreign policy moves.

The EU as a result is scrambling to provide some incentives to Ankara to get it to fall in line which Marc Pierinia veteran EU former diplomatsays shows the EU has “decided to take a soft line toward Ankara”. Bobby Ghosh similarly argues that the problem with Europe’s “carrot-and-stick approach” to Turkey is that “they are unwilling to wield the stick.”

Nigar Goksel refers to the fact that given the decision by the EU to halt Turkey’s accession process, with no real prospects for restarting talks, or even economic and other types of incentives, what measures other than sanctions can the EU take? Karol Wasilewski, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs attributes this paralysis to the lack of a framework to guide Turkey-EU relations following the breakdown of accession talks.

A more recent piece in The Economist bemoaned lack of ability on the part of the EU to influence Turkish policy. In typically infantilizing language the article said the situation is “the worst of all worlds: not enough carrot to lure Turkey back into the fold but not enough stick to force it to comply.” The article attributes this development to President Erdogan’s apparent agenda to undo the legacy of the republic’s founder Ataturk and distance Turkey from Europe. This is indeed an interesting & ahistorical way to view things given what Ataturk himself thought about “carrot-and-stick” approaches to his country.

One day a contemporary of AtaturkHalide Ediptranslated an article which had a comment by a British official speaking about “The Big Stick Policy” in reference to British-Turkish relations during the Turkish War of Independence. Ataturk was furious and his response to the attitude of the Brits was clear: “They shall know that we are as good as they are. They shall treat us as equals. Never will we bow our heads to them!”

The problem isn’t just with the fact that Turkey-EU relations no longer operate within a clear framework, but there is also a clear legacy problem about how some Europeans approach and think about Turkey. Turkey isn’t viewed as an equal partner with interests worthy of consideration but a vessel which the EU should guide to carry out its bidding at best a junior partner. A child to be disciplined until his behavior matches expectations. If Ataturk was thinking the same way as President Erdogan about “carrots and sticks”, it should come as no surprise that common ground has been so difficult to find for Ankara and Brussels lately.

“It is time to reset expectations” Nigar Goksel & Hugh Pope write in Chatham House magazine The World Today. In an article which best captures the current mood in Ankara, Goksel and Pope make clear that to view the impasse between Turkey and the EU primarily as problem with President Erdogan is mistaken. “Turkey has always done things its own way: building bridges one moment, bridgeheads the next.”

Burhanettin Duran, a columnist at Daily Sabah, offers a Turkish view of the cause of the breakdown in relations when he says “the carrot-and-stick approach is highly problematic. It advocates an asymmetrical relationship that defies the spirit of alliance and integration.” This will be a difficult stumbling block for those European countries which still conduct their foreign policies with a hangover from the 19th and 20th centuries.

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