(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Relations between the European Union and Turkey – officially still a EU accession candidate – have grown so chilly that the word “sanctions” has been applied to the EU’s latest punitive moves against its Mediterranean neighbor. But in this particular case, Europe would do well to apply some transactional wisdom rather than more confrontation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan hasn’t been a friend, or much of an ally, to Western leaders recently. He proceeded with the purchase of a Russian anti-aircraft system despite strong U.S. objections, prompting calls in the U.S. for pushing Turkey out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He’s also ignored EU demands that Turkish ships stop drilling for natural gas to the west and northeast of Cyprus, where they’ve been licensed to do so by the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but not by the Greek-speaking government of Cyprus, an EU member state.
In response, the EU, which had already concluded that Turkey wasn’t really interested in accession or, indeed, in deeper cooperation, took punitive measures. It suspended talks on liberalizing air travel with Turkey and said it would no longer hold any high-level meetings with Turkish officials within joint bodies set up under Turkey’s association agreement and customs union with the EU. It also ordered cuts to financial assistance Turkey is receiving as a prospective member state (it got almost $5 billion in 2014 through 2020).
This is essentially a freeze on any progress in the relationship, even if “sanctions” is too strong a word. The customs union – which is a closer partnership than the U.K. will have with the EU if it Brexits without a deal – is still in place, after all.
Freezing out Turkey and waiting for Erdogan to go is the natural, knee-jerk reaction to the Turkish leader’s refusal to behave like an ally. That approach, however, lumps together all sorts of different issues – Russian weapons purchases, self-centered Turkish behavior in Syria, Erdogan’s domestic policies since the failed coup against him, support for Northern Cyprus – under the blanket notion of Turkey as a renegade ex-partner. It’s simplistic and not particularly useful.
Some modern leaders, including, most notably Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, subscribe to the idea that the modern world isn’t so much about long-term alliances as about sovereign interests and specific transactions in which these interests come into play. Europe has already dealt with Erdogan on that basis, signing a crucial migrant-return deal in 2016. In exchange for some EU cash, Turkey helped stop a refugee crisis that threatened to blow up for a number of European leaders. That can be a model for future interactions, including in the Cyprus gas dispute.
The underlying issue, after all, predates Erdogan. All international attempts to mediate between the Greek and Turkish parts of Cyprus have failed so far. The latest round of United Nations-sponsored talks failed in 2017, and it's difficult to apportion blame for that unsatisfactory outcome. The Turkish side has a point when it says cooperating on gas exploration and production could help bring the sides of the long-running conflict closer together; they’d be business partners in a lucrative venture. It also makes sense that Cyprus’s Turkish community should share in the energy wealth discovered near the island in 2011.
The Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, has proposed setting up a joint committee with the Republic of Cyprus for cooperation on the hydrocarbons. But the Greek Cypriots have roundly rejected the proposal, saying it “distracts from the essence of the Cyprus problem.”
It’s normal and understandable for the EU to side with its member state against an increasingly uncomfortable partner. But it’s in the EU’s long-term interest to get the Cyprus conflict settled, and the gas issue presents an opportunity to advance in that direction. Besides, the Cyprus offshore gas fields are potentially important to Europe’s energy security, and the EU as a whole would be well-served by defusing tension there.
The EU should use its collective negotiating prowess to push both sides toward a deal. Taking a tough stance and trying to punish Turkey is unlikely to achieve anything: Erdogan will just push ahead and establish a foothold in the gas fields, potentially gaining more than he loses because of the European countermeasures.
It rubs many European leaders the wrong way to admit that Erdogan has a point on anything. But as they should know from the migration deal, compromising with him can sometimes be useful.
To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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