Geopolitical Illusions: Portuguese diplomacy and Turkey’s accession to the EU

  • José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes
  • 25 June 2020

The diplomatic activity between Portugal and Turkey was intense since the 1980s and 1990s, which led to ten agreements concluded until 2014.

  1. In the beginning of the 21st century there was a unique diplomatic proximity between Turkey and Portugal after Turkey’s candidacy to the European Union (EU). A peculiar affinity of positions emerged between the two States, however, recently cooled by the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish Government and its unilateral participation in the Syrian war, targeting mainly the Kurds. The case is intriguing since these two States are quite different — in their geography and past —, but also in their scarce traditional interaction, both at the political, cultural, or economic levels. Thus, trying to understand the rationale behind the strong Portuguese diplomatic support for Turkey’s accession to the European Union is an interesting political and strategic exercise.
  2.  First, the economic factor. Measured by the bilateral agreements concluded, the diplomatic activity between Portugal and Turkey was intense since the 1980s and 1990s, which led to ten agreements concluded until 2014. Despite this eagerness to celebrate bilateral conventions, especially in the area of economic cooperation, the practical results were not impressive, as shown by the last available data from AICEP / Portugal Global: “The Turkish market assumes a relatively modest position in the context of Portuguese international trade. Portuguese exports of goods to Turkey and imports from that country “are not very significant”. In 2016, Turkey occupied 17th place in the ranking of Portuguese exports, and its share in this global value was 0.84%. As an origin of imports, Turkey ranked 16th in the respective ranking in 2016 with a share of 0.87% that same year. In the case of tourism, “Turkey has little expression as a tourist-emitting market” (0.2% in 2016 in global hotel revenues). Even taking into account the time lag in these data — which, however, are the most recent numbers released by AICEP / Portugal Global —, the image that emerges is the aforementioned little relevance of the Turkish market for Portugal.
  3. As demonstrated by AICEP data, bilateral economic-trade relations are not particularly important. Hardly can they explain the relevance that Turkey has acquired in Portuguese foreign policy since the early 2000s. Nor are they likely to explain the strong diplomatic support for that State’s accession to the European Union. However, as already noted, Turkey’s ambition to be a member of the European Union found widespread sympathy in Portugal during a long period of time. Politicians from different political areas represented the Portuguese State at the highest level, such as the Prime Minister José Sócrates, or the Presidents of the Republic Jorge Sampaio and Aníbal Cavaco Silva; Foreign Affairs Ministers Diogo Freitas do Amaral and Luís Amado; prestigious ambassadors, like José Cutileiro in his former column O mundo dos outros (The world of the others), written in the influential weekly newspaper Expresso; other diplomats such as Manuela Barrio in the Diplomatic Institute’s magazine, followed by several academics, they were all very understanding of Turkey’s ambition to become a member of the European Union. But once the explanation of economic diplomacy is set aside, the fundamental explanation will be found somewhere in the political realm.
  4. Without underestimating other possible reasonable explanations for such attitude, there is one (perhaps quite uncomfortable for the Portuguese diplomacy) worth highlighting. The cultural and political-strategic endogamy of a small European state — one of the most homogeneous in the world — probably played a role, creating nearly the same perception about Turkey. In addition, it can also be explained by the country’s desire to separate itself from its past prior to the 1974 democratic revolution, then an authoritarian, colonial regime, full of stereotypes towards Islam. Now, the democratic Portugal wants to show itself — and Europe and the World — as an open, tolerant and “bridge builder” country. So, for Portuguese diplomacy, Turkey has emerged as the “perfect case” to be used in strategic harmony with the closest Atlantic allies, the United Kingdom and the USA. This perception probably explains the easiness of convergent positions amongst successive governments and politicians, from left and right wings. In addition, things became easier owing to the absence of any historical or political Portuguese dispute with Turkey, unlike other States of the European Union, such as Cyprus or Greece. Nor would the country (directly) bear the financial costs of membership, such as others like Germany, France, Austria or the Netherlands.
  5. Today it is clear that the Portuguese foreign policy underestimated the geopolitical complexities of Turkey and its foreign policy objectives. As a consequence, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Government’s ultimate goals were probably poorly understood. Many Portuguese politicians and diplomats thought of him as a genuinely democratic politician in an Islamic fashion, someone who would make Turkey reach the European Union, and seriously adhere to the European values. Thus, in the slogans of a decade and a half ago, the Union would cease to be a “Christian club” to become a genuinely multicultural and multi-religious organization. At the same time, Turkey would be a solid NATO ally and very close to the British and American ones — the traditional Atlantic pillars of Portuguese security and defense. It would be “the best of both worlds”, that of values and that of interests, which rarely fit together harmoniously. But what happened in the last years was that Turkey moved away from European values, clashed with the interests of NATO, and revealed itself to be a problematic partner on the issue of refugees and the Syrian war. Indeed, the prolonged Portuguese diplomacy wager on Turkey eventually disclosed a case of unsuccessful foreign policy.


  • José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes
  • Researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations (Nova University of Lisbon)