European Union leaders are currently busy selecting the next heads of the union’s key institutions. Among the new bigwigs to be appointed is the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy—in short, the EU’s foreign minister—who will succeed Catherine Ashton in December. The next high representative will inherit a lackluster record but, more importantly, will also have to tackle a host of thorny topics, from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq.

Turkey will be another of these critical issues. The country is not ablaze; on the contrary, for the EU and NATO, it is a pillar of stability in a highly volatile region. But in the eyes of Turkey’s Western partners, a number of domestic and international concerns could challenge that stability. Faced with an unstable regional context, how should EU leaders handle their southeastern neighbor?

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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The EU’s new leaders must prioritize Turkey and move quickly to improve relations. This requires a well-coordinated road map and enhanced cooperation in five essential areas. Such a course of action assumes that the next Turkish president and government will want to achieve genuine progress.

Fluctuating Attitudes

Undoubtedly, the EU’s next foreign policy chief will have to take a hard look at the union’s stance on Turkey. That is not exactly an easy task, given the two sides’ complex attitudes toward their important relationship.

As far as the EU is concerned, European leaders’ unclear positions on issues such as visas for Turkish citizens, fundamental liberties in Turkey, the Syrian refugee crisis, the EU-Turkey Customs Union, or the country’s potential EU accession have seriously complicated relations.

In Turkey, the public is disenchanted with the elusive objective of EU membership. Meanwhile, the government has frequently taken positions formally in favor of the EU-led reform process only to apply the brakes when these reforms become impediments to Turkey’s domestic politics. For years, Ankara has berated the EU for not advancing accession negotiations fast enough but has recently been dismantling huge chunks of the country’s rule-of-law architecture. Such vacillation has triggered questions about the government’s real commitment to the objective of EU membership.

Turkey has adopted fluctuating or contradictory positions on other major subjects as well. Calling for NATO solidarity in the face of perceived threats from Syria while at the same time heavily criticizing U.S. policies in the region and leaving Turkey’s border with Syria wide open to Western jihadists has raised eyebrows in Washington and EU capitals, to put it mildly. On all such issues, Ankara needs to stick to a clear, coherent message and act accordingly.

Turkey is also preparing for a leadership change of its own this year. On August 10, the country will elect a new president, and opinion polls unanimously point to a win for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, currently the prime minister. (There will be a second ballot on August 24 if no candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.)

If the polls are confirmed, Turkey will be headed for five years under a president who, as prime minister, has led a fluctuating foreign policy in the eyes of his Western partners. This will be an issue as the Turkish government wants the country to be elected to one of the nonpermanent seats on the UN Security Council for 2015–2016.

The much less likely hypothesis in August—that an opposition candidate will be elected president—does not make any of the challenges to Turkey’s stability less relevant for Western countries. Whoever is president of Turkey by the end of 2014, the EU has a long to-do list.

A Fresh, Inclusive Methodology

The first priority for the next EU high representative will be to try to put some order into the union’s foreign policy toolbox. In 2009, the Lisbon Treaty ushered in a new EU foreign policy architecture. The first five years of that setup have been characterized by a distinct lack of coordination between the high representative, who is supposed to deal with matters of foreign policy, and the EU institutions, mostly the European Commission but also the council of ministers. Examples abound of the EU’s dismal record in using its large and diverse toolbox. Generally speaking, improving interinstitutional coordination in Brussels will be a crucial task for the new batch of leaders about to take office.

Concerning Turkey specifically, a more integrated approach will need to include the president of the European Commission, the European commissioners for enlargement, trade, humanitarian assistance, energy, home affairs, and education and culture, the EU counterterrorism coordinator, and, indeed, the foreign policy high representative. Together, they must agree on a set of effective tools.

The second priority for the new high representative will be a quick resumption of the dialogue between the EU and Turkey. After a thorough review of the complex set of issues that dog EU-Turkey relations, the new high representative would benefit from an early visit to Turkey. In contrast to the single bilateral visit that Ashton made to the country during her tenure, the next foreign policy chief should at the very least be accompanied by the European commissioners for enlargement and humanitarian assistance and the counterterrorism coordinator, and possibly others as well.

Turkey-EU relations are bound to become a serious headache if major issues are not discussed in a systematic, open, and coordinated fashion. Domestically, the most pressing problems include a massive Syrian refugee crisis, fragile economic growth, a shattered rule-of-law architecture, and authoritarian methods of governance. These issues are all directly relevant for the EU.

Abroad, Turkey has to contend with a surrounding region that is on fire, a crippled EU accession process, and a host of unresolved (or worsening) foreign policy issues. Frequent personal cell phone conversations between Ashton and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as useful as they may have been, should be replaced by a more inclusive, coordinated approach if leaders are intent on working toward stability, prosperity, and democracy in Turkey.

During such a dialogue, the new EU high representative should stress the overwhelming importance for Turkey of its security and economic anchorage to the West in general and to the EU in particular. The depth of Turkey’s reliance on EU markets and on defense assurances from NATO, of which Turkey is a member, have long been the pillars of the country’s international posture. Now is the time to reinforce those pillars.

The Components of a New Road Map

Once the hubbub of Turkey’s presidential election (and the appointment of a new government) is over and the EU’s institutional reshuffling is complete, the EU should resume serious work and introduce a more inclusive approach toward its southeastern neighbor. Late 2014 will likely be the first window of opportunity for a thorough examination of all pending issues between Turkey and the EU.

The many crises in the region and their repercussions on Turkey and the EU, as well as the problematic state of Turkey’s democratic standards, amply justify a new comprehensive dialogue. Fresh talks should be results-oriented and not drowned in the self-complacent ritual of “dialogue for the sake of dialogue” that has all too often characterized previous encounters.

A key element of any new EU-Turkey dialogue should be a clear road map setting out the major priorities for bilateral relations. Such a road map should be led by the high representative and should be built on five key components.

Dealing With the Fallout of the Syrian Crisis

As part of its humanitarian policy, the EU provides assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey and Syria’s other neighbors. The EU first offered such aid to Turkey in 2011, when fewer than 10,000 Syrians had trickled across the border. Back then, Ankara refused, saying that Turkey would cope by itself and that the EU could write blank checks to the country’s emergency aid agency. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one’s standpoint—the EU’s humanitarian agency, known as ECHO, does not work in that way. Relations on this issue have somewhat improved since 2011, and ECHO now has a permanent coordination team residing in Turkey.

But the Syrian refugee crisis has now taken on overwhelming proportions. Almost 800,000 refugees are officially registered with the UN refugee agency, while many others are not. The total number of Syrians living in Turkey is estimated at well over 1 million, some say close to 2 million. As I recently witnessed personally, the streets of central Istanbul are filled with Syrian beggars, while entire families spend the nights in the open in public parks along the coastal road leading to Istanbul Atatürk Airport. These highly unusual scenes in Turkey’s largest city are unsustainable from a humanitarian and societal point of view.

It is high time for the EU and Turkey to agree that despite the country’s remarkable efforts, the Syrian refugee crisis is now an international issue, not just Turkey’s own problem. Brussels and Ankara must devise new modalities for humanitarian aid, and the EU should provide more substantial support according to EU standards that Turkey should accept. The two sides should take joint responsibility for this new arrangement, which should not be subject to petty disagreements. A further deterioration of the Syrian refugee situation in Turkey would inevitably lead to catastrophic human consequences.

Turkey and the EU should also continue to improve counterterrorism cooperation to thwart Western jihadists. After months of denial and reluctance, Ankara has recently acknowledged the problems linked to the presence of thousands of Turkish, European, and other Western jihadists in Syria and Iraq. A particular domestic threat comes from “returnee jihadists”—those who return home to commit terrorist acts in the West after fighting in the Middle East. The best way to tackle this menace is by means of thorough, seamless cooperation among relevant institutions. EU member-state agencies and the union’s counterterrorism coordinator should now work hand in hand with their Turkish counterparts and use all tools at their disposal, including those in the purview of the European Commission.

Ensuring Progress on Visa and Migration Policies

Paradoxically, Turkish travelers to the EU are treated less favorably there than citizens from many countries around the world that do not have the depth of economic and human relations that the EU and Turkey enjoy. Europe’s attitude toward Turkish visa applicants, which was shaped by the influx of large numbers of Turkish guest workers into Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, should evolve. EU political leaders should acknowledge that the union’s current, overly restrictive visa policy hurts its business interests, educational and cultural influence, and overall political standing in Turkey. The EU should make steady but tangible progress toward reforming its visa policy to make the EU a more welcoming destination for Turkish citizens.

The counterpart to visa facilitation is the EU-Turkey readmission agreement. This bilateral arrangement, which both sides signed in December 2013, establishes procedures for the readmission of irregular migrants who enter the EU from Turkey. Ankara should implement this agreement in earnest, while the EU should support Turkey as it negotiates its own readmission agreements with migrants’ countries of origin.

Amplifying Cooperation on Education and Financial Support

The unsung success story of EU-Turkey cooperation is the Erasmus+ program (and its predecessors), which has allowed tens of thousands of Turkish students, teachers, and researchers to access the EU’s best educational and research centers. This joint, co-funded program is a unique opportunity for both Turkey and the EU. Erasmus+ should be vastly expanded, not increased incrementally, to send a clear political signal: that the EU cares about the future of Turkey’s society and offers Turkey access to EU centers of excellence. The EU should carefully monitor fair access to the program, which should be based on applicants’ competence and potential.

Besides promoting educational cooperation, the EU also supports Turkey financially. The EU’s Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance is the main vehicle through which the union offers Turkey financial backing for reform programs linked to the country’s accession process. The instrument deals with technical domains that are critical for the Turkish economy, such as norms and standards, pollution control, and consumer safety, as well as the rule of law—including human rights and fundamental liberties—which is key for societal harmony.

It is important for Turkey to allocate all available funds to projects that promote a more EU-compatible Turkey. Dialogue between civil societies and cultural circles has a major role to play in this respect. Given the dominance of Turkey’s ruling political party and the depth of polarization in Turkish society, the EU should ensure that its funds do not become a political tool but instead serve society as a whole.

Addressing the EU Accession Process and the Cyprus Question

Turkey’s EU accession process is generally regarded as being dead in the water. That is not strictly true, since a number of negotiation chapters are still open for discussion, and more could be opened if France lifted the veto it has imposed on several fields. In Turkey, business circles, civil society organizations, liberal reformists, and the Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are clearly in favor of EU membership.

But there are increasing doubts about the Turkish prime minister’s and government’s willingness to make progress toward the adoption of EU standards in areas that they may not see as in their immediate electoral interest: competition policy, public procurement, and the rule of law. Apart from the accession process itself, a serious commitment to accession-related reforms on economic and rule-of-law issues would clearly have a positive influence on Turkey’s international economic standing, in terms of foreign direct investment, short-term funds, and bank ratings, which are all critical to the country’s performance.

One way to give Turkey’s EU accession negotiations a major boost would be to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus dispute. Four decades of division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have led to many wasted economic and human opportunities for the island nation. True, frozen conflicts are resilient creatures in foreign policy. But today, the foreseeable benefits of an agreement far surpass the sleeping beauty of the status quo. The resolve of the Cypriot leaders to reach a settlement and the encouragement of the guarantor powers of Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom will be key.

Related to Ankara’s EU membership bid is the EU-Turkey Customs Union, which has been a formidable vehicle for Turkey’s industrial modernization during the last two decades, and which both sides should reexamine. The agreement was initially intended as a precursor for EU accession, but with the prospect of membership now so distant, the customs union has turned into a handicap. Specifically, the accord poses serious problems for Turkey as it obliges the country to automatically adopt the results of free-trade deals negotiated between the EU and third countries such as Mexico, India, South Korea, or, in the future, the United States.

This disadvantageous position gives Turkey a legitimate reason to complain. The EU must recognize and address this issue by giving Turkey a special status in free-trade negotiations between the EU and third countries. After all, Turkey is the only country in the world today whose industrial production platform is entirely assimilated into the EU by means of a customs union. Turkey contributes to the EU’s competitiveness, and it deserves a voice in the union’s free-trade talks with other countries.

Devising a Real Foreign Policy Discourse

Recent foreign policy exchanges between Turkey and the EU can best be characterized as an exercise in looking the other way. Ankara and Brussels have achieved little more than photo opportunities and countless telephone calls. Certainly, the EU’s key objective of bringing Turkey’s foreign policy closer to the EU’s has been totally missed. But now, the Middle East is in turmoil, and Turkey and the EU have no more time to lose to make their views more compatible—even though some issues will remain subject to significant divergences.

There are three main areas where the EU and Turkey should revamp their foreign policy discussions and where progress would be beneficial for both sides. First, they should talk about Syria and Iraq—including the prospects of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan—as these are conflicts in which both Turkey and the EU face immense challenges. Second, Brussels and Ankara should discuss Turkey-Armenia relations, another long-standing frozen divergence. Third, they should deal with Turkey-Israel relations, where a resumption of normal bilateral relations once again stumbles on developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All three issues deserve serious attention, despite the sensitivities involved in each.

Time to Talk Turkey

In recent years, the EU has elected to deal with Turkey through a piecemeal approach that has had more to do with the union’s own bureaucratic intricacies (and the fallout from the Lisbon Treaty) than with political design. Meanwhile, Ankara has pursued its dense relationship with the EU in fragmented ways, seemingly convinced that it would derive greater benefit from such a method than from a more straightforward approach.

The EU and Turkey now face a substantially deteriorating geopolitical environment. Today’s situation in the Middle East and the Black Sea is full of uncertainties and risks for both partners. This calls for a comprehensive approach from the EU and an openness to dialogue from Turkey.

A new Turkish presidency and a reshuffled EU leadership potentially provide fertile ground for a revamped relationship. The EU’s next foreign policy high representative should waste no time in taking the initiative to kick-start this crucial partnership. At the same time, the next president of the Turkish republic should accept and maintain the country’s deep economic and political anchor to the European Union.