Is Turkey turning back towards the West?

President Erdogan has ‘de-escalated tensions’ between Ankara and the West

An illustration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, with an arrow
Erdoğan pulled off a ‘dexterous political manoeuvre’ at Nato, said an observer
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Turkey surprised observers this week when it reversed course and approved Sweden’s bid to join Nato.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously blocked Stockholm’s application, accusing it of hosting Kurdish militants, but he U-turned by “linking his support for Sweden’s Nato bid with Turkey’s own application to join the EU”, said Politico.

Some commentators believe this signals a shift in Ankara’s relations with the Europe and the US but others suggest it is in fact the West that is changing its position.

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What did the papers say?

Analysts said that in his “third decade in power and final term in office”, the “Turkish strongman may be on a conciliatory path with the West”, noted CNN.

By backing Sweden’s Nato bid, Ankara is “signalling a recalibration in ties with the West, which have been strained for a while now”, Mehmet Celik, editorial coordinator for the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, told the broadcaster.

Turkey is “forging new paths in Europe, also resuming talks with Greece”, agreed Al Jazeera, “after more than a year of tensions between the historic foes”.

The bid for EU membership was an “audacious move” that “caught even close observers by surprise”, said Politico, but “it has zero chance of happening any time soon”, as although EU leaders made a “careful public show” of “treating the Turkish leader’s request seriously”, membership of the bloc was “discarded almost instantly”.

Nevertheless, “officials are considering where they could cooperate more with Turkey” and “if anything comes from it, that’s a win in Erdogan’s book”. If nothing changes, a former European Commission official told the outlet, that gives the leader “another reason to fuel nationalism”.

Erdogan’s “dexterous political manoeuvre” was “the latest in a series of decisions that have ‘de-escalated’ tensions between Ankara and the West”, said the Financial Times.

Yet “deep scepticism lingers” over whether this is “part of a broader foreign policy shift” because the “change of tone” comes as Ankara is “desperate to lure back foreign investors who have fled during a years-long economic crisis”.

Turkey’s current account deficit reached a record $37.7bn in the first five months of 2023, and Erdogan is “hoping international inflows” will help finance the “yawning gap”.

However, the Daily Sabah said the “claim of a shift in Türkiye’s position is unfounded” as “Ankara has consistently maintained its stance” and “the West is actually the one undergoing a revision in its position”.

“It is not Türkiye that has distanced itself, closed doors and shown hostility, and now seeks closeness”, it said, as Joe Biden “was even talking about unseating the president of Türkiye before taking office”. Yet “it seems that they have accepted the reality that they will have to spend another five years with Erdogan, whom they couldn’t remove,” the paper argued.

What next?

Following the Nato U-turn, there are three fronts that Turkey will be looking for progress on: relations with the EU, arms from the US, and a mediatory role in the Russia/Ukraine conflict.

Progress has already been confirmed on the second front. “Hours after Ankara said it would allow Stockholm into the bloc”, Washington announced it will proceed with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, the “likely trade-off for Ankara’s green light”, said Al Jazeera.

A senior EU official said the breakthrough over Sweden would “open space for work in a multitude of areas”, said the Financial Times. Turkey has “long sought an upgrade to Turkey’s customs union with the EU, visa liberalisation and extensions of its multibillion-euro migration deal with the bloc”, and Erdogan “raised all these topics” in a recent meeting in Brussels.

Meanwhile, speaking at a press conference this week, Erdogan claimed that Turkey could act as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv to end the conflict in Ukraine. However, Russian media said that Vladimir Putin currently has no plans to speak with Erdogan.

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