Skip to content

How should the West engage with Turkey during Erdoğan’s third Presidential term?

Article by Emre Caliskan

May 30, 2023

How should the West engage with Turkey during Erdoğan’s third Presidential term?

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the second round of Turkey’s presidential elections, extending his 21-year rule for another five years. Despite the two deadly earthquakes that hit Turkey in February and economic instability being felt in the country, Erdoğan’s win in free but not fair elections is still regarded as a victory.[1]


Turkey will remain indispensable for the West

For the West, working with Erdoğan’s Turkey has been, and will continue to be, a major challenge. Like other authoritarian leaders, Erdoğan has consolidated his power, including through controlling the mainstream media, purging his rivals, and suppressing dissidents.


Yet with its high export capacity, Turkey is an important part of the Western economic system. From preventing an irregular influx of migration into the West, to intelligence sharing in combatting global terrorism, Turkey plays a key role in the Western security system. Indeed, Turkey is a crucial member of NATO. Moreover, despite deep political tensions between Turkey and the West, Turkey is still formally a candidate for European Union (EU) accession.


Much like other emerging economies such as Brazil and South Africa, Turkey is trying to have a transactional relationship with the West in its own unique way. However, Turkey is not fully integrated into the Western-based global order. From Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh, from Syria to Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey disagrees with the Western priorities. These differences, combined with Erdoğan’s ruthless and shrewd personality, makes it very difficult for the West to engage with Turkey.


Nevertheless, Turkey is indispensable for the West. Whether it is Turkey’s role brokering the grain deal between Russia and Ukraine, or the exchange of prisoners, Turkey has become a linchpin for regional and global security. Should Turkey continue to drift towards Russia and China, it will create a bigger problem for the Western political and security system. Therefore, it remains critical for European countries and the United States to engage with Erdoğan’s Turkey, focusing on priorities rather than differences.


How should Western countries engage with Turkey?

After the election, according to diplomatic practice, Erdoğan will make his first foreign trip to Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Azerbaijan. After that, one of Erdoğan’s first visits is likely to be to the UK. The Turkish President will be seeking support by sending a message of confidence to financial centres, especially London, regarding the economic instability in his country. Many experts pointed out before the elections that the country was headed for a balance of payments crisis and current account deficit.[2]


The UK and the EU should support Turkey’s efforts towards financial stability. Instead of Turkey borrowing from China and Arab countries, Turkey should be offered easier credit opportunities. During the credit negotiations, Western countries should steer Turkey away from Erdoğanomics towards an orthodox rule-based economic governance. This could prevent the financial crisis from deepening.


The customs union agreement between Turkey and the EU, and even the Ankara agreement, Turkey’s association agreement with the EU, should be updated.[3] The UK and Turkey should also update the free trade agreement by adding the service sector, agriculture, investments, and digital economy, which are excluded under the EU’s Customs Union agreement. These steps will contribute to keeping Turkey within the Western economic system.


The West should increase military co-operation with Turkey and prevent Ankara’s further turn towards Moscow and Beijing. In September 2017, Turkey purchased a Russian S400 air defence system. As a response to the purchase, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey under a section of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and excluded Turkey from the F-35 programme.[4] The F-16 modernisation deal by the Biden administration would be an important step in attempts to keep Turkey in the Western security bloc.


Turkey is currently in talks with the UK’s Roll Royce for the transfer of engine technology in its first national jet, TF-X.[5] But both sides are tired of protracted negotiations. Taking a concrete step in these negotiations by clarifying issues such as Intellectual Property (IP) rights would prevent Turkey searching for a Russian or Chinese alternative.


The importance of continued military co-operation between Turkey and the EU countries has become more important during the Russian war in Ukraine. Both sides should increase their military cooperation by focusing on their joint interests. Turkey’s own military technologies such as Bayraktar drones should be included in NATO exercises.


Notable watch points – Syria and the PKK

Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) forces in Syria continue to be a major challenge in the military and political relations between Turkey and the West. While the West sees the YPG as an important partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ankara considers the YPG a branch of the The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a terrorist organization. After the elections, Erdoğan is likely to push ending the YPG’s presence in the region by cooperating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through Russia. The West should establish a joint mechanism with Turkey to address Ankara’s security concerns, and in return Turkey should not disrupt the fight against ISIS. Turkey and Western countries should calibrate their relations with Syria in a coordinated manner.


The UK could play a mediating role between Turkey and the PKK behind closed doors, as it has done in the past. With local elections in Turkey in a year’s time and Erdoğan’s political alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdoğan is prevented from progressing peace talks with the Kurds. But behind closed doors, Turkey should be encouraged to take steps in respect to the Kurdish issue. British officials should be mindful of the difference between  the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish movement’s political leader Selahettin Demirtaş. Turkey should be urged to release all political prisoners, including Demirtaş in private meetings.


Non-governmental interventions

Less ambitious, lower-level interventions also do sometimes work to put pressure on the Turkish government. Foreign academics, writers, journalists and artists should engage with Turkey. We need to keep talking about the human rights violations, the growing level of authoritarianism as well as the thousands of dissidents currently in jail. The way to help is by going to Turkey, speaking out and writing about these issues. This approach is better than excluding Turkey and pushing the country further towards Russia and China. Engagement with Turkey is in the best interests of the West and Turkey too.


Emre Caliskan is a FPC Research Fellow.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


Image by


[1] Fareed Zakaria, Turkey Points to A Global Trend: Free and Unfair Elections, May 2023,

[2]  Yilmaz: Turkey Headed For Balance of Payments Crisis, Bloomberg, May 2023,

[3] İlke Toygür, A New Way Forward for EU-Turkey Relations, Carnegie Europe, January 2022,

[4] Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, The United States Sanctions Turkey Under CAATSA 231, Press Statement, US Embassy & Consulate in Greece, December 2020,,president%2C%20and%20other%20SSB%20officers.

[5] Joseph Trevithick, Our First Full Look At Turkey’s New TF-X Stealthy Fighter, The Drive, March 2023,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre