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Using NATO membership as leverage, Turkiye is giving the EU a taste of its own medicine

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) in Ankara, Turkey on October 05, 2020 [Fatih Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) in Ankara, Turkey on October 05, 2020 [Fatih Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]

Turkiye has surprised many policymakers and analysts over the past decade with its diplomatic prominence, soft power projection and hard power in the form of drones and other advances in weaponry. During this time of its expansion across the world stage – despite its largely shrunken economy – it has gained many adversaries, while stoking old tensions with others, not least through its assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean and its insistence on protecting its national security.

The latest assertive move has appeared over the past seven months in the form of Turkiye's leverage over Sweden and Finland, which want to join NATO but have been prevented from doing so by the Turkish government's use of its veto. Ankara is using this primarily to exert pressure on both Stockholm and Helsinki to crack down on the influence and presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates within their borders, as well as to lift certain restrictions and extradite individuals suspected of aiding "terrorism". The PKK is designated as a terror group by Turkiye, the European Union (EU), and the United States.

Without meeting Turkiye's demands to Ankara's satisfaction, Sweden and Finland will be unable to become part of NATO. They are both desperate to join in order to protect themselves from threats from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago.

Since then, both Nordic countries have signed an agreement with Ankara to pass and implement anti-terror laws and a number of measures to meet the conditions for Turkish approval. The process is ongoing and has been drawn out by increased Turkish demands and Sweden's insistence that it cannot fulfil them all.

OPINION: Turkey's balancing act as NATO seeks to expand

Turkiye is holding up the accession of Sweden and Finland as NATO members primarily with the intention of putting pressure on both governments to join the fight against terrorism by tackling the PKK. That is Ankara's foreign policy focus.

Yet there may be more to this. Ironically, it could be Turkiye's revenge for Europe denying it entry to the European Union for decades. EU member states hold the keys to Turkiye's accession to the bloc, and now Ankara holds the keys for two of those members to join NATO.

Sweden and Finland are legitimate targets for Turkish pressure because both continue to host elements of the PKK, and appear to give them free rein to operate there. The US and the EU would not hesitate to put pressure – or even impose sanctions – on Turkiye if it intentionally hosted designated terrorist elements.

However, if this is indeed an attempt by Ankara to put pressure on European states for its own EU membership bid, then Stockholm and Helsinki are the wrong targets. Both have, after all, been generally quite warm towards Turkiye's bid. While other EU members such as Germany, Austria and Belgium have openly voiced opposition to Turkish membership over the years, Sweden and Finland have welcomed negotiations and the possibility of Turkish accession. Fate and geopolitical reality have led them to pursue NATO membership at this time, though, so they are the only possible targets for Turkiye to "take hostage" – as some European states and media put it – for leverage in its EU membership bid.

As it stands, that bid is not going very well, with progress at a "standstill" and the European Parliament continuing to blame Turkiye for cracking down on human rights and freedom of speech. Greece, as usual, is also attempting to put pressure on the EU to punish Ankara for pushing back on the issue of maritime rights and territorial waters, as well as urging it to ban imports of Turkish fish.

The static status quo is thus as potent as ever. Turkiye and the EU are each using the other for most gains for the longest possible time, while Brussels maintains its false position about potential Turkish membership and cooperation.

OPINION: EU must see Turkiye as candidate country engaged in membership negotiations, says FM

What will result from the ongoing diplomatic tussle is largely uncertain, as is the extent to which Stockholm and Helsinki will meet Ankara's demands. Sweden has already lifted its arms embargo on Turkiye, which it imposed in 2019 in response to Turkish military operations against Kurdish militants. It has also been vocal in its positive intentions towards their agreement, but may not be willing to take harsher measures, such as meaningful arrests of PKK-affiliated individuals or extraditions. Finland has not yet even lifted its own arms embargo against Turkiye, so is a step behind its neighbour.

Turkiye, meanwhile, may see a genuine and substantive use for its current leverage as an opportunity to push for the acceleration of its EU membership bid and even those of its allies in Europe, such as Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Negotiations over the Nordic countries' NATO bids are ongoing and look set to last many more months. Turkiye has presidential and parliamentary elections in May or June, which will determine the future of the ruling AK Party, so it might want to get this matter sorted sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Ankara may seek to use its NATO leverage to secure guarantees from Stockholm and Helsinki regarding its decades-long EU accession talks. Progress could be measured either in the form of fast-tracked negotiations or by striking certain deals such as the dropping of travel and visa restrictions for Turkish citizens to the two EU states, or even the bloc as a whole.

One of the many issues frustrating Turks is the amount of documentation that they must submit to visit an EU country, and the number of visa applications which end up being rejected. If the AK Party and its government are able to ease the visa issue, it is likely to benefit its candidates at the polls in a few months' time.

OPINION: Understanding Turkiye's position on NATO enlargement

Ankara may also take advantage of the fact that Sweden currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU for the first half of this year. This does not give Stockholm the power to act on Turkiye's EU accession, but it does mean that it has a certain amount of influence over the bloc's decision-making process.

Whether Turkiye does decide to use its current cards as an opportunity for progress on the EU front or not, there is no doubt that it is frustrating European states and fellow NATO members in order to boost its own security and obtain anti-terrorism guarantees from Sweden and Finland. There has been no allusion by Turkish officials that Ankara's use of its NATO veto is linked to any desire for revenge for the EU's interminable delay in Turkiye's accession process. Nevertheless, by holding some degree of leverage and making full use of it, Turkiye is showing its hand and showing the exclusive and selective European club that it too can play the game.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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