Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan surprised everyone at the NATO Summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius by taking a sudden step this week to warmer relations with the West. Erdoğan first stunned NATO allies on Monday when he suddenly dropped his long-held objection to Sweden's request to join the military alliance, despite only a few hours earlier hitting out at Stockholm for failing to do enough to stop terrorism. In return, Sweden pledged support to Turkey in its bid to reopen negotiations for Turkey to join the EU.
Erdoğan’s sudden change of tack highlights just how much the newly re-elected president is looking to mend diplomatic relations with the West and reassure foreign investors who have ditched Turkey in recent years because of its economic woes. In addition to Western countries, Erdogan is trying to accumulate some goodwill to secure investments from other cash-rich Western allies, especially Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, Erdogan’s last-minute push to add Turkey’s EU bid to the NATO negotiations will likely help to bring the updating of Turkey’s customs union agreement with the EU back on to the negotiating table. Ankara has been pressing to expand the scope of the treaty. This move by Erdoğan will also help discussions regarding visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals visiting Europe. .
Erdoğan met US President Joe Biden separately yesterday at the NATO summit. Turkey now looks on course to receive a long-awaited congressional greenlight from Washington for the purchase of F-16 fighter jets and provision of modernization kits from the United States. In 2019, the United States removed Turkey from the advanced F-35 program, prompting the Turkish side to opt for the less advanced but still capable F-16s. Another incentive is the long-time Turkish demand for its NATO allies to lift all defence sales embargoes against Ankara. Both Sweden and Finland lifted de facto arms embargoes imposed over Turkey's military operations against the Syrian Kurdish groups. Canada froze talks with Turkey on lifting export controls over Ankara’s military support to Azerbaijan during a 2022 war with Armenia, but it signalled this week that the talks would resume. Reuters reported this week that Canada also agreed to resume talks on lifting export controls on drone parts.
However, even after this major step, Turkey, Sweden and NATO are not in the clear yet. The Turkish parliament is scheduled to go into a two-month recess soon. If Ankara does not see progress on its demands, it could slow down or halt the process once again.
As for relations between Ankara and Moscow, crisis management seems to be underway. Relations have cooled in the last two weeks over Erdogan’s strong endorsement of Ukrainian membership in NATO. However, the Turks and Russians have too many matters over which they must continue to cooperate; such as the grain deal with Ukraine, Turkish exports to Russia, Russian tourists spending billions of dollars in Turkey, Turkish energy imports from Russia and the ending of the civil war in Syria.
Despite the excitement generated in the pro-Erdoğan media in Turkey, it is believed by experienced commentators that the Turkish president is unlikely to revive his country’s EU bid. Both the EU and Turkey lost the will and interest for full membership in the mid-2010’s as Ankara’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law began to weaken while mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa upset European electorates.