Making sense of foreign policy in the “new” Turkey

25 May 2016

On 25 May, the European Policy Centre (EPC) held an event to discuss Turkey's foreign policy; EFD Senior Policy Advisor Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek was one of the main panelists.

Not so long ago, Turkey’s foreign policy was hailed by many commentators as a success story. With the motto of “zero problems with neighbours”, Turkey successfully improved its relations with many of its neighbours and, in particular, those in the Middle East. Furthermore, because Turkey is a secular Muslim country with a liberal market and close ties to the West, it was promoted as a model for the region. Unfortunately, today, this policy is in ruins. Turkey’s relations with many of its neighbours have soured while relations with its traditional allies in the West, the US and the EU, have been plagued with difficulties. A panel of experts assessed the main dynamics that shape contemporary Turkish foreign policy, how these dynamics affect Turkey’s regional ambitions, its security and what lies ahead.

Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC), opened the Policy Dialogue stating that sometimes it is difficult to make sense of Turkey especially as the situation is changing on a daily basis. She highlighted the recent resignation of Ahmet Davutoğlu as Prime Minister, who has since been replaced by Binali Yildirim and a new government which is composed of close allies of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. She asked to what degree these changes are going to impact on both domestic and foreign policy. She also recalled the original foreign policy goals of former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Davutoğlu who was the architect of the “zero problems with neighbours policy” and who had declared that “the AKP would not just be a political party but a great historical movement which would establish Turkey’s hegemony over the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East”. Unfortunately Davutoğlu’s policy broadly failed, not least in the Middle East, while relations with the EU and USA have become more difficult as a consequence of differences in foreign policy in the Middle East. However, there are some positive foreign policy developments such as the ongoing efforts at normalisation of relations with Israel, and Turkey could yet prove to be a constructive regional player in the re-unification of Cyprus. While Turkey remains an important regional state, she added there is clearly room for change, including normalising relations with Egypt, and on that note she introduced the panellists, all three of whom are experts on Turkish foreign policy.

Demir Murat Seyrek, Senior Policy Advisor, European Foundation for Democracy, began by examining what exactly is meant when one refers to the ‘new’ Turkey. Failing to understand this concept means it is in turn difficult to comprehend Turkish foreign policy within this context. Seyrek stated that he doesn’t believes in ‘new’ Turkey which, in his view, is not a sustainable long-term system. He argued that ‘new’ Turkey refers to the state that President Erdoğan aims to create by establishing a new constitution and presidential system of governance. He stated that in order to create the kind of fundamental change that Erdoğan wants, certain factors need to be present in order for that to happen: he argued that one needs consensus; experienced teams of people to implement changes; and a transformation of bureaucracy. None of these factors are currently present in Turkey. He added that he believed that Turkey would remain democratic because Turkey still has internal dynamics, strong pro-democracy groups and democratic institutions.

Hüseyin Bağcı, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Middle East Technical University, began by offering a brief overview of the role that former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had played in the formation of recent Turkish foreign policy, claiming that Davutoğlu has been the most influential foreign affairs adviser and subsequently Minister since 1923. He argued that one can view Turkish foreign policy from two perspectives: its achievements - he alluded to four new horizons in Turkish Foreign Policy: Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eurasia - and its missteps after the Arab Spring.
Before expanding on the latter, Bağcı spoke about President Erdoğan, stating that the president is a man under fire. Bağcı argued that Erdoğan is a new type of leader: he has charisma but he has also capitalised on the failings of others both inside and outside of Turkey. His ability to make gains from such failings demonstrates his status as a political animal; Bağcı affirmed that Erdoğan is both pragmatic but Davutoğlu misguided him in terms of foreign policy. Bağcı claimed that Erdogan lacks good foreign policy advisers.

Erwan Lannon, Visiting Professor, EU International Relations and Diplomacy, College of Europe, moved the discussion towards the EU-Turkey migration deal which is continuously changing and is highly complex from a legal point of view. Lannon claimed that from the start, he and other lawyers expressed concerns about the legality of the deal, and he himself was skeptical of its workability, largely because the deal refers to ‘migrants’ and not ‘refugees’. Furthermore there appears to be contradictions in the terms laid out in the deal. Additionally, the first Greek tribunal has ruled that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees. These factors make it difficult for the EU and Turkey to work together. Lannon stressed that the focus should be how temporary these arrangements between Turkey and Greece are going to be; however temporality may not even be the main question as Lannon expressed his skepticism of the viability of the deal. He stated that the opening of EU chapters for negotiation in such a deal is not normal procedure and this adds to the confusion of Turkey ascension. Lannon argued that there are many issues at stake and the EU has suffered a blow in reputation from the migrant deal as evidenced by negative press coverage.