Today, July 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will take his oath of office for a new five-year presidential term, after a first term of nearly four years. This time, he will become a super-executive president. Most powers will be concentrated in his hands, there will no longer be a prime minister, and almost none of the checks and balances of liberal democracies will be present. In other words, Turkey will be an institutionalized autocracy.
This systemic evolution has been carefully nurtured by Erdoğan for years. Despite his vast powers, however, he will have to cope with two unwanted matters. The larger one is an impending economic and monetary crisis, largely self-provoked through his government’s monetary policies and its policies on interest rates, which had Western markets extremely worried for months, especially concerning the independence of the central bank. The other matter is the strong electoral showing of Erdoğan’s ally in parliament, the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, which may want to weigh in on foreign policy issues according to its own anti-Western propensities.
As a result, the foreign and security policy that Erdoğan will be able to conduct is difficult to predict. It will almost certainly prove to be a delicate juggling act, with vast implications for the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the Middle East. Erdoğan’s first opportunity to show the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy will be his participation in the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12.
By far the most delicate foreign and security policy question today is Turkey’s simultaneous procurement of a Russian S400 missile defense system, with associated radar systems, and of 100 U.S.-made F35 stealth aircraft. The technological incompatibility of the two systems has long been explained to Turkey’s specialists, but it may only have dawned recently on the political leadership that there is no way for the systems to operate simultaneously without putting at risk the high-tech features of the stealth aircraft, which is deployed by the United States, Israel, and many European forces. To put it bluntly the purchase of S400 missiles, if it takes place, will raise a “whose side are you on?” question from the U.S. and NATO.
A second delicate issue is the war in Syria and the political process intended to end the conflict in the country. Ankara’s policy and military moves have created difficulties with the anti-Islamic State coalition, the United States, Russia, and rebel movements on the ground. Among these difficulties, the Kurdish issue remains by far the most sensitive one. U.S. and French forces operating east of the Euphrates River continue to rely on the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an organization regarded by Ankara as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which it considers a terrorist organization.
On the ground, the next moves of Turkish forces around Manbij and in Idlib Governorate will be of critical importance for Ankara’s relations with Washington and Moscow. While Erdoğan did his utmost to rally Turkish and international public opinion around the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations in northern Syria, it is not entirely certain that committing more troops (therefore potentially generating more casualties) in the area between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, or indeed in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, would be popular.
In Turkey’s regional environment, the stalemates in a comprehensive settlement over Cyprus and the normalization process with Armenia are still solidly in place. While a Turkish move to make even limited progress on those questions would go a long way toward improving Erdoğan’s image in the West, the presence of the MHP in parliament will probably prevent any initiative on these fronts.
Finally, the multifaceted relationship with the European Union is another major hurdle that Erdoğan will face. There is no doubt in Europe (and possibly in Ankara too) that the bridges between Turkey and the EU have been burned—both on substance, with the massive deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey, and at the personal level, with Erdoğan’s repeated assaults on EU leaders in the past year and a half. No warm embraces can be expected on the margins of the NATO summit next week. In addition, Erdoğan’s first words after the June 24 election, to the effect that “Turkey has given a lesson to the entire world on democracy ...” were not likely to endear him to European leaders, who may have interpreted his statement as being partly, albeit implicitly, directed against them.
Yet Turkey and the EU have several vital reasons to keep talking to each other. On the economic front, Turkey’s economy relies heavily on European markets, technology, and capital flows and there is simply no alternative to that. Similarly, a collapse of the Turkish economy, which provides a strong production base for European manufacturers under the EU Customs Union as well as representing a vast market for service providers, would have a negative effect on EU businesses. On the security front, the presence on Turkish soil of 1,000–2,000 returning jihadis with EU passports makes it imperative for some European countries to cooperate with Ankara on counterterrorism issues. The “EU-Turkey deal,” through which Turkey has shielded Europe from larger refugee flows, is another strong reason for both sides to continue cooperating.
On the other hand, the EU accession process of Turkey has moved closer to political termination. Given the positions taken by the Austrian, Dutch, and German coalitions, and by the French president, as well as the conclusions of the June 26 EU Council meeting, there is simply no way the process can be rekindled. Despite formal protests, one can sense some relief in Ankara since the EU’s policy stance rids the Turkish president of strong political conditionality. However, it is not as simple as that, since both the modernization of the Customs Union and negotiations over visa liberalization have their own intrinsic conditionalities. It will therefore take more than just photo opportunities and a lifting of the Turkish state of emergency for Ankara to patch things up with Europe.