No Drawbridge to Turkey
No Drawbridge to Turkey
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

No Drawbridge to Turkey

Forces of fragmentation have long tugged at the fabric of the nation-state on Europe’s southeastern borders. Now Turkey, arguably the most successful and coherent state of the region, is experiencing insecurity and widening ethnic and sectarian fault-lines as Middle Eastern turmoil spills over its 900-km frontier with Syria. How will Europe react? Europe’s right-wing political current believes that excluding Turkey is the answer to the problem, putting up barriers and closing down the country’s European Union accession process. In Turkey, a Euro-sceptic reaction elicits equally rejectionist feelings. However, there is no drawbridge between the borders of Europe and Turkey. Ignoring the problems in the respective relationships is, therefore, not an option.

The well-being and safety of the European Union depends considerably on its relationship with Turkey. This applies the other way as well; a reality that is sometimes hard to see due to excesses of domestic political rhetoric on both sides. Europe, and its already multinational societies, currently have little protection from all the regional stress, given the open waters of the Mediterranean and a Turkey that now feels emotional hostility, commercial rivalry and strategic ambivalence. The past five years have seen the undermining of the traditional pillars of Turkey’s international relationships, which were a strong army, a solid alliance with the U.S. and NATO, opportunistic trading relationships and an ambition to join the European Union. 

A new point of inflection may be approaching as growing Middle Eastern turmoil applies pressure to Turkey. Overspill from the Syrian conflict has killed 77 people on the Turkish side of the Syrian border since June 2012.[fn]Open source tally by International Crisis Group up to 20 November 2013.Hide Footnote This insecurity is adding tension to the sectarian divide between the country’s Sunni Muslim majority and Alevi communities (including close cousins of Syria’s Alawites), who make up at least 10 per cent of the population. It has also added a new dimension to the long-running fight between the Turkish army and insurgents drawn from Turkey’s Kurdish- speaking communities, who account for 12-15 per cent of the population. Mishaps include the apparently accidental bombing of a caravan of smugglers that killed 34 Turkish Kurd civilians, the loss of a Turkish warplane on the edge of Syria’s territorial waters and an explosion that killed 25 conscripts at an army base.

At the same time, the Cold War bedrock of Turkish foreign policy, its relationship with the US, has also been shaken. There have been many frictions, not least over misleading US signals about arming the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s high-stakes unwillingness to normalise relations with Israel. Turkey has said that it wants to buy

Chinese radars incompatible with NATO, and has talked of closer links with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is dominated by Russia and China and is sometimes presented as an alternative to NATO. As one leading study of clashing U.S.-Turkish policies puts it: ‘challenges... have steadily mounted’ in an ‘underperforming partnership’.[fn]See Ambassadors Morton I. Abramowitz and Eric S. Edelman, Co-Chairs, ‘From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing US Turkey Policy’, Bipartisan Policy Center, October 2013.Hide Footnote

An economic slowdown may also be in store for Turkey. The economy did well after a banking meltdown in 2000-2001, growing at an annual average of five per cent over the decade to 2012. Istanbul has become a glossy regional hub and Turkish Airlines flies to 200 destinations (with its thickest web of connections to northern Europe). But a period of higher US interest rates in the summer of 2013 showed how quickly Turkey’s fragile balances are upset when big short-term capital flows reverse direction and flow out of the country instead of into it.

Similarly, while Turkey benefited from huge trade opportunities in the Middle East in the 2000s – its exports to the Gulf alone going up eight times – the Arab uprisings since 2011 have delivered a grave blow. Turkish trucks can no longer cross Syria and Iraq and economic opportunities in the region have plummeted. The Turkish government’s idealistic and perhaps naïve outreach to Middle Eastern countries has also crashed. Ankara’s increasingly pro-Sunni and pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance has aroused deep suspicions in the principal regional capitals of Cairo (after the ousting of President Morsi), Riyadh and Tehran.

Turkey’s most important set of relationships – with European states and the EU, responsible for nearly half of its trade – also stalled after accession talks that started in 2005 ran aground. Both sides are to blame. Attacks on Turkey and its right to join the eu by nationalist and right-wing politicians, particularly France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, made Turkey feel there was no point in making politically difficult compromises and reforms. Turkey often overestimated itself, too, acting as an equal negotiating a partnership and not an applicant trying to join a club.

Cyprus, an intrinsic element of the Turkey-EU relationship, remains a spoiler. Divided politically between its Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities since 1963, and physically after the Turkish invasion in 1974, a major round of peace talks between 2008-2011 ended with little new clarity. Attempts to revive the talks in the autumn of 2013 have been uphill work. Greek Cypriot determination to develop new natural gas discoveries without involving the Turkish Cypriots, and Turkey’s increasing indifference to Greek Cypriot views, have reinforced the de facto partition of the island.

In recent months, however, there are signs of change. Political unrest in the summer of 2013, especially in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square, showed that Prime Minister Erdogan’s power is not unchecked as he heads into a cycle of elections – municipal (March 2014), presidential (summer 2014), and parliamentary (summer 2015). After three decades of conflict between the insurgent PKK and security forces, he has chosen to break taboos rather than continue with the stalemated violence. His 16 November 2013 gala of Turkish-Kurdish togetherness in Turkey’s main Kurdish-speaking city of Diyarbakır – which included Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani as a guest of honour – revived hopes that a March 2013 ceasefire is part of a real peace process.

Internationally, Ankara’s policy of ‘worthy isolation’, which replaced an emphasis on ‘zero prob- lems with neighbours’, clearly proved too lonely, accompanied as it was by a realisation of how few real levers Turkey has in the Middle East. The first sign of change was Turkey’s 2012 call to NATO for American, German and Dutch Patriot missiles to defend itself against potential chemical weapons attack from Syria. Ankara has also rebooted relations with Shiite powers in Tehran and Baghdad and opened a new chapter in the EU negotiations, the first in three years. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu began to set a new tone:

Turkey’s leading role in transatlantic institutions is the primary pillar of its foreign policy. [...] the EU membership process has been re-energized. [...] Ankara and Washington share the very same objectives when it comes to engaging with the Middle East. We have both sided with the new collective consciousness in the region – one that prioritizes good governance in its struggle against authoritarianism.[fn]Ahmet Davutoglu, ‘With The Middle East In Crisis, US and Turkey Must Deepen Alliance’, Foreign Policy, 15 November 2013.Hide Footnote

To further strengthen these hopeful changes, a new approach to the Europe-Turkey relationship is needed. In the place of competition, European and Turkish coordination and engagement is far more likely to mitigate crises in Syria and the Middle East, help Cyprus’s economy, deal with migrant flows into southeastern Europe, ensure the smooth integration of the now stable Turkish population of four million in the EU, and build up European energy security. 

The most obvious option is to revitalise the current EU accession negotiations for Turkey’s membership (a 50-year-old process that can only be voted on after another decade, if then). The rigour of the EU process between 1999 and the mid-2000s laid the foundations for Turkey’s great leap forward and could give the same anchoring discipline again. This is clearly advantageous for Europe, too. For instance, if Cyprus is settled, normalisation will give Greek Cypriots an economic shot in the arm that will relieve a small but significant part of the Euro crisis.[fn]One study foresees a 10 per cent jump in gdp within seven years of normalisation. ‘The Day After: commercial opportunities following a solution to the Cyprus problem’, Peace Research Institute-Oslo, 2008.Hide Footnote EU-NATO ties will at last be freed of Turkish-Greek Cypriot obstacles, and a raft of other prickly issues and outright rivalries will be cleared from the agenda of EU meetings relating to southeast Europe.

It is true that some European Turkey-sceptics have quietly hidden behind the convenient fact that Cyprus blocked half of Turkey’s negotiating chapters with the eu. In recent years, also quietly, Turkey’s leadership has been just as happy to be spared too much EU pressure. But a relaunched EU process would automatically give Turkey a positive, much-needed new narrative – top Turkish officials often underline that the accession process is more important to them than actually joining the EU – and bring Europe leverage on issues it, and many Turks, care about in Turkey: freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, transparency of government and a fairer political system.

Another idea is an associate membership as recently proposed by Euro-parliamentarian Andrew Duff; or perhaps a privileged partnership, proposed but never fleshed out by German, French, and other actors. Two thirds of foreign investment in Turkey is from Europe, and a more stable, prosperous Turkey is not just better for European companies who take advantage of this vibrant market, it also reinforces the reality that Turkey is no longer the country of emigration that it once was, whatever the imaginings of the European right.[fn]Studies show the total number of Turkish citizens living in Europe has dipped, partly because many are adopting European citizenship, and most Turks no longer want to migrate to Europe. See www.euimagine.org.Hide Footnote And just as there are Turkish immigrants at work in their countries, Europeans should take into account that integration has put European banks on the corners of every town high street in Turkey.

For some in Europe, Turkey looks like a medium-sized outsider with an attitude problem. But Europe needs to revise its attitudes, too. Europe needs to look harder at whether it wants Turkey to continue as a problematic rival in its south- eastern backyard, or whether it is more productive to ease those problems through greater partnership.

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