Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Turkey and the EU desperately need each other. The EU has always been an anchor for Turkey’s democracy. Thanks to the European values of non-military intervention in politics and religious freedoms, Erdoğan received the support of Turkish liberals at least up until 2007.
Yet Erdoğan’s instrumentalization of the EU has not helped Turkey in the EU accession process. Faced with the current dismal state of democracy in Turkey, it is unbelievable that Europe allows Cyprus to block Chapters 23 and 24 on judiciary and fundamental rights, and on justice, freedom, and security. Moreover, Turkey is still the only accession country that is not included in the Schengen area. It was only the refugee crisis that accelerated the talks on this issue.
Moreover, the Greek crisis, the Brexit debate, and the images of refugees drowning in the Aegean have made it very difficult for even the most fervent supporters of the EU in Turkey to argue for the EU’s norms and values.
Yet we know that Turkey needs Europe not only because of the domestic situation but also to improve the country’s international standing. As a democratic Muslim country, Turkey has been a role model in the Middle East—made possible because of its alignment with Europe. We also know that this is exactly why Europe desperately needs Turkey. Turkey is essential for the inclusion and integration of the future generations of the refugees as well as for the future security of the region. The question should be not whether the EU can do business with the Turkish president, but how the EU can work with Turkey.
The question is not so much whether the EU can do business with Turkey, but whether the EU is willing to pay the price for it.
Turkey has long demanded that the EU steps up its financial support to Turkey for the refugee crisis. Up until the end of 2012, Ankara rejected any external support, trying to show that with its newfound economic strength it could master the problem alone.
While Turkey has since opened its doors to the UN and various humanitarian agencies to help deal with the refugee issue, Ankara—driven by the omnipresent paranoia of the central state to lose control—is at the same time making it hard for international NGOs to even work legally in the country. Additional funding that the EU is now willing to release to help manage the refugee crisis in Turkey is meant to be channelled through UN agencies, but Turkey wants to see the money flow into its own coffers.
The other demand that Europe will have a hard time dealing with is the longstanding Turkish wish to create a safe zone in northern Syria. Not only would that draw the EU deeper into the Syria quagmire, it would also mean that Turkey might push back refugees from its own territory into this zone, thereby compromising humanitarian protection.
What Erdoğan is right to point out is that the EU still has failed to come up with a plan to tackle the main driver of the refugee crisis: the brutality of the Assad regime. Nothing seems to indicate that this might change in the near future.
Finally, there is the domestic situation in Turkey, where an ever more authoritarian president is shrinking the country’s democratic space and driving a policy that has helped reignite the long-dormant conflict with the PKK.
The EU should not let itself be bought off in exchange for complacency about these issues. Such a policy would eventually backfire, as it is producing even more instability in the region—the very driving force that led to the flow of refugees in the first place.
It is exactly ten years since the EU-Turkey negotiations began. With the exception of a few Tweets and one particular project called “Sivilog,” this so-called anniversary has not generated significant interest in either Turkey or the EU.
Yet, there are a few civil society groups that advocate how Turkey and the EU should carve out areas of bilateral cooperation that can play a role in promoting the EU value’s agenda and return Turkey to its “2005” status, when the country was democratic enough to meet the Copenhagen criteria and start accession negotiations.
The EU’s latest proposal to provide $1 billion of financial aid to Turkey to support refugees and migrant management, made during President Erdoğan’s recent visit to Brussels, may be perceived as an attractive offer. However, it remains unclear whether these funds are part of the EU’s IPA funds for 2014-2020, which are still being negotiated.
In any case, this assistance offer is about keeping refugees in Turkey. What it indicates is that the EU is pursuing a policy of offshoring the burden to Turkey, rather than treating the country as an equal partner.
For there to be progress on issues that are mutually important to both Turkey and the EU, Europe needs to reassess its position and come up with a more equitable business plan on the refugee crisis—which is a global human tragedy—on the one hand, and continue to support Turkey’s EU track on the other.
It could, but it does not have to. EU leaders are scrambling to respond to the crisis, but they must be clear-eyed about the bigger picture.
Erdoğan may sometimes behave like Putin. But, in key respects, he is not Putin and Turkey is not Russia. Turkey is not a revisionist power, seeking neither to upset the regional order nor to redraw boundaries. Turkish institutions have proven remarkably resilient vis à vis attempts to remold them along authoritarian lines.
Common ground between the EU and Erdoğan should be sought in three interconnected areas:
The paradox is that it may be easier to discuss these issues with Turkey than between the EU’s member states and institutions.
The EU currently brings little to the table that interests Erdoğan. The accession process is stuck. Visa liberalisation is decided by member states. There is little new money. However, Turkey needs good relations with the country most affected by the current refugee crisis: Germany.
If Germany offers to accept a predetermined and substantial number of Syrian refugees—for example, five hundred thousand—from Turkey, then Erdoğan has an interest to help control the open border in the Aegean.
Meanwhile, an aggressive nuclear power, Russia, uses force with impunity in the Black Sea region, seizing territory in Crimea, supporting separatists, and waging an undeclared war in Ukraine. It has forces in Abkhazia and at the Armenian border. Its fighter planes bomb Turkey’s allies in Syria. It’s forged an alliance with Assad and Iran. How far will Russia go to pressure Ankara? Nobody can be sure. Plus: ISIS is hostile. Turkey is at war with the PKK. The country has no relations with Egypt.
Turkey needs good relations with those who can contain Russia. Throughout the Ukraine crisis, this has been Berlin. Turkey also has an interest to prevent the rise of an anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish and pro-Putin European right, which exploits the refugee crisis. Merkel and Erdoğan share this common interest.
The impression in Ankara may be that Turkey has a strong bargaining chip with the EU because of the current asylum seekers crisis and that the EU will work with Turkey on the latter’s terms. Yes and no.
On asylum seekers, despite having turned down early EU assistance offers in 2011 and 2012, and despite its proud rhetoric, Ankara will now entertain EU proposals to channel aid through the UNHCR and WFP. But, the EU will also ask Turkey to police the shameful human traffickers who operate in broad daylight along the country’s southwest coast. If genuine cooperation is to emerge, the screening process of asylum seekers will need to take place in Turkey.
For the rest, views are largely divergent: the Turkish idea of a no-fly zone/safe zone on Syrian territory are now dead in the water after Russia’s intervention; on terrorism, the PKK is on the EU list of terrorist organizations, but the PYD/YPG are not, and they are considered as the best buffers against ISIS in Syria; visa liberalization talks with Turkey will proceed, but not under the veiled threat of new waves of refugees heading to Europe; finally, a vigorous resumption of accession talks seems compromised until the vastly degraded state of rule of law in Turkey returns to some sort of EU normalcy.
Europe must do business with Erdoğan. The market for really nice guys is not overstocked these days on Mediterranean shores. If you frown on Egyptian Prime Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his Latakia buddy Russian President Vladimir Putin, and so on, you should at least deal with Mr. Erdoğan.
The EU should regret its myopic assessment of Turkey long ago, when hapless bureaucrats failed to design a savvy lane to engage Ankara in the European community. Full membership might have been delayed, Schengen rules might have been forfeited, but shoring up the South Eastern Asian flank with a NATO ally would have been a smart move. Now, Europe should try do disengage Erdoğan from his descent into a semi authoritarian regime, betting on his fear of Putin as Assad’s protector.
Turkey fears Kurdish independence, but Syria's unrest has already burdened the country with at least 2 million refugees. This cannot last; even Erdoğan’s base and his usual iron fist may be shaking.
Europe should talk, cajole, negotiate, hint of reward under the new TTIP pact, and hope to find if not a new friend, at least a steady partner in Ankara.
Europe and Turkey should work together on several issues of mutual interest, such as shared strategic objectives, migration, and trade. Yet shared goals should not overshadow the areas where opinions differ—and that seems to be exactly what happened as President Erdoğan met with EU leaders in Brussels this week.
Worried by flows of refugees coming to Europe, often through Turkey, EU leaders sought commitments on better border controls. While the Turkish authorities initially chose to manage the influx from Syria on their own, it is only fair that the EU shares the burden now that Turkey wants help.
But cooperation requires trust and, despite the press statements, trust is low. Concern over where Turkey is heading is great—so great, that it seems to paralyze Brussels.
The escalation of violence after increased PKK terrorism must be stopped and peace negotiations revived. After years of systematic problems with press freedom and the rule of law, a lack of separation of powers, and snap elections only weeks away, the EU must not only do business with Turkey’s government. It must also be crystal clear that EU-Turkey relations cannot be business as usual as long as there are no democratic reforms.
European leaders must address the deep polarization in Turkish society and be clear about expectations of respecting fundamental rights and freedoms. They must not walk away from difficult topics. Addressing these issues would send the clear message to the people in Turkey that the principles that the EU claims to be based on actually mean something.
Turkey is and will remain one of the most important countries for the EU. Be it for matters related to trade, security, energy, or, more recently, migration, Turkey is critically important.
As such, the EU has no choice but to do business with whatever government Turkey’s citizens elect. Today, Turkey’s elected president is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—the EU must do business with him, and with the AKP caretaker government that emerged from the June 7 parliamentary election. The EU will do business with whatever government is formed following a new election on November 1. Yet it is clear that the kind of business the EU can do with Turkey will hinge on what government emergences from this vote.
Put bluntly, the scope for trust and genuine cooperation between the EU and a Turkish government that continues entrenching majoritarian rule, curtailing rights and freedoms, shelving the Kurdish peace process, and pursuing a Syria policy based on the hazy distinction between “good” and “bad” jihadists, is highly limited.
Were a government to emerge in Turkey that put political and economic reform back into the limelight, that pursued a more nuanced Syria policy, and that engaged in an refugee conversation as an end in itself (and not as a lever to push Europeans into supporting an ill-thought out safe zone in Syria), what is now a difficult but necessary relationship could be uplifted into a trust-based journey toward a common future.
The EU has an interest in compelling Turkey to enforce its border controls and to fight against the illegal outflow of refugees. At the same time, Turkey has an interest in seeing the EU deliver more in terms of resettlement and financial assistance for the large number of refugees that are likely to stay in Turkey in the foreseeable future.
This cooperation cannot be episodic. On the contrary, it has to be long-term given that in the absence of a political settlement in Syria, more and more Syrians will seek refuge both in Turkey and in the EU.
Ankara and Brussels can establish such a long-term cooperation provided that there is a detailed and comprehensive agreement on a common strategy to address this crisis. This was the objective of Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels this week, and the concomitant announcement of a draft action plan to step up EU-Turkey cooperation on refugees is testimony to a joint political willingness to start to build the foundations of such a long-term partnership.
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