Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Report 184 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and Europe: The Way Ahead

The pro-reform AK Party’s resounding victory in the July 2007 parliamentary elections gives both it and the European Union (EU) a chance to relaunch Turkey’s accession process, which has floundered since 2005 due to Europe’s enlargement fatigue and a neo-nationalist backlash in the country.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

The pro-reform AK Party’s resounding victory in the July 2007 parliamentary elections gives both it and the European Union (EU) a chance to relaunch Turkey’s accession process, which has floundered since 2005 due to Europe’s enlargement fatigue and a neo-nationalist backlash in the country. That process, pursued with real application, has the capacity to help both sides. Popular opinion may show fatigue but leaders and diplomats need to keep avenues open for when political confidence returns, as past experience with the enlargement process suggests it can.

There is no need for Europeans to fear the membership goal. All in Turkey acknowledge the country is not yet ready. The earliest possible date for membership is a decade away, by which time it will be much changed. Turkey can only join if it has fulfilled the stiffest conditions applied to any candidate; any EU government can veto membership at the end of the road, and the French people can vote on it in a referendum. By then the Turks, too, may have second thoughts about the last step.

Pointing, as some European leaders now are, to Turkey’s current political, economic, social and demographic challenges to support arguments for its exclusion underestimates the transformative potential of the reform process. It is a short-sighted view that ignores earlier integration success stories in Western and Eastern Europe. The debate should be about joining a reformed Turkey to a reformed EU. 

Europeans who attack the prospect of Turkish membership of the EU underestimate the damage they do to European interests. The mistrust generated already has caused Turkey to reduce its contribution to Europe’s common security policy. Ankara is showing signs of independent military policies over which Europe has diminishing leverage. Europe’s energy security is not being advanced. Mistakes by all sides over Cyprus are causing the dispute to poison what should be unrelated areas of the EU-Turkey relationship.

The way forward is, on the Turkish side, for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to use his new mandate to step forward with a bold further reform program, catching Europe’s imagination with some sweeping new gestures, like repeal or overhaul of the notorious Penal Code Article 301. On the European side, it is a matter of full, serious and continuing engagement in the accession process and not excluding the possibility of Turkey’s ultimate membership if there is full compliance with EU norms.

The present environment is not an easy one in this respect. Prejudices from the past, unrelated events in Iraq, bad timing in Cyprus and misreading of intentions have driven a wedge between the West and its long-time ally, the most successful secular democracy in the Islamic world. Politicians on both sides have irresponsibly attacked the EU-Turkey relationship as a populist proxy for domestic worries about immigration, welfare or national security.

In November 2005 the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came to power in Germany pledging to downgrade the goal of Turkey’s EU negotiations to “privileged partnership”. In December 2006, the EU froze the opening of eight of 35 negotiating chapters because it was unable to overcome an impasse with Turkey over Cyprus. In May 2007, France elected President Nicolas Sarkozy, who campaigned, inter alia, to end Turkey’s hope of membership. France then blocked the most important of three negotiating chapters that were to be opened in June.

The EU-led reform process has slowed in Turkey. Public support for membership has shifted from overwhelmingly positive to sceptical, and a new nationalism has arisen. Human rights abuses and prosecutions of writers have increased. The military has sought to reverse the course of the EU-bound political process. Anti-EU slogans merged with anti-American ones to become some of the loudest chants in massive secularist rallies in the months before the election.

The EU is not responsible for all Turkey’s tensions with the West. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the presence of Turkish Kurd rebel bases in U.S.-protected Iraqi Kurdistan are major reasons why public opinion has soured. But EU states need to be more sensitive to Turkey’s legitimate grievances about Kurdish attacks, especially bombings of civilians, and certainly if there is evidence they are being supported from Europe.

It needs to be better recalled on the European side that it was the start of negotiations with the motivating goal of EU membership that provided the stimulus for a golden age of Turkish reform in 1999-2004. The process brought stability, five years of 7.5 per cent economic growth, unprecedented foreign investment, legal and educational improvements, a blooming of civil society, critical Turkish contributions to EU peacekeeping projects, an alleviation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and a fleeting chance to solve the frozen Cyprus conflict. Despite the increasingly negative atmosphere since 2005, technical work on EU reforms continues in Ankara. In April 2007, the AK Party (AKP) drew up the country’s most intensively researched action plan for convergence towards EU standards.

EU-Turkey convergence has slowed before, and opportunities to speed it up will come again. If the results of the February 2008 elections in Greek Cyprus signal a new opening towards the UN’s bicommunal, bizonal plan for a solution, the EU should seize the chance to remove this roadblock. After all, mutual trust and an EU umbrella since 1999 have now smoothed problems that once seemed insoluble between Turkey and Greece.

Even European politicians sceptical of Turkey’s European vocation seek the reforms in Turkey that only the motivation of the membership process can bring. French-led objections once held up the candidacies of Spain and the UK for reasons some of which were similar to those heard today. Like Turkey, those countries had former non-European empires and ambivalence about a centralised EU. Turkey can contribute as much to the EU as other “unwanted” candidates have in the past – both during the accession process and, if the two sides agree, as a member.

Istanbul/Brussels, 17 August 2007

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.