Turkey and the EU: Build­ing on a shaky bridge

Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By OFRA BENGIO

In one of his lat­est speeches Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan stated that the Euro­pean Union needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the Euro­pean Union. By this Er­do­gan was im­ply­ing that Turkey is a strong coun­try, that it has lever­age against Europe and that Ankara’s pref­er­ences do not nec­es­sar­ily lie with the West. In­deed, at the turn of the 21st cen­tury the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Turkey and the EU has un­der­gone paradig­matic shift.

His­tor­i­cally speak­ing, re­la­tions were built on four im­por­tant pil­lars which can be summed up in the fol­low­ing catch­words: bridge, model, ori­en­ta­tion and as­set. From the EU point of view Turkey was a bridge to the Arab Mus­lim world both in older and more mod­ern days. Turkey was also per­ceived as a po­ten­tial model for the Mus­lim world, be­ing con­sid­ered the only Mus­lim demo­cratic coun­try in the en­tire Mid­dle East. It was sec­u­lar, pro-West­ern and most im­por­tantly as a NATO mem­ber it ap­peared to be a buf­fer against the Soviet Union and later Rus­sia. Turkey was also viewed as a bul­wark against Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism em­a­nat­ing from Iran and other rad­i­cal forces such as al-Qaida.

Seen from the Turk­ish per­spec­tive the EU formed a bridge to the West­ern world and to the United States – Turkey’s most im­por­tant ally world­wide. Europe and its val­ues of sec­u­lar­ism and democ­racy was a model for Ke­mal­ist Turkey. The EU was also a very im­por­tant strate­gic as­set against pos­si­ble en­croach­ment on Turkey’s ter­ri­tory from the Soviet Union and later Rus­sia as well. At the same time, strong eco­nomic part­ner­ship was part and par­cel of these re­la­tions.

Still, the re­peated re­buff­ing of Turkey’s at­tempts to join the EU re­mained a main stum­bling block in the ties be­tween the part­ners, and the question that needs to be an­swered is whether the paradig­matic shift has ac­cel­er­ated the ac­ces­sion process or blocked it fur­ther.

The above-men­tioned four pil­lars suf­fered a se­vere blow of late due to the chang­ing po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere un­der the AKP, the up­heavals in the Mid­dle East and the chang­ing threat per­cep­tions of the two sides. From the EU point of view Turkey did not live up to Euro­pean ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially with re­gard to demo­cratic val­ues, free­dom of ex­pres­sion, hu­man rights and rule of law, which ap­peared to be de­te­ri­o­rat­ing rather than pro­gress­ing. Fur­ther­more, grow­ing Is­lamist ten­den­cies, the on­go­ing war in the Kur­dish re­gion and na­tional, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial po­lar­iza­tion seem to have taken a toll on Turkey’s sta­bil­ity and ori­en­ta­tion, thus dam­ag­ing fur­ther the chances of its ac­ces­sion to the EU. The no­tion of a “bridge” has also changed, having be­come a con­duit for in­un­dat­ing Europe with refugees. Nor did Turkey prove its sig­nif­i­cance as a strate­gic as­set, at least vis-à-vis Is­lamic State.

From the Turk­ish point of view the Euro­pean model of sec­u­lar­ism and democ­racy is no longer ap­peal­ing to the AKP po­lit­i­cal elite. As to its ori­en­ta­tion, Ankara has been seek­ing to bal­ance re­la­tions be­tween East and West with the main am­bi­tion be­ing “unit­ing the Is­lamic world” un­der its aus­pices. Fur­ther­more, Turkey’s ex­pec­ta­tions from the EU suf­fered a se­vere blow be­cause while Europe had no qualms about ac­cept­ing other new mem­ber coun­tries with un­demo­cratic and com­mu­nist po­lit­i­cal cul­tures, it has been drag­ging its feet with re­gard to Ankara’s ac­ces­sion process. This left an open wound among Turks, who feel Turkey was re­buffed just be­cause of its be­ing a Mus­lim coun­try.

Nor did the EU play any sig­nif­i­cant role in soft­en­ing Rus­sia’s stance on Turkey fol­low­ing the down­ing of a Rus­sian fighter plan in Novem­ber 2015, or in eas­ing Moscow’s sanc­tions on it. Of late, Ankara has been deeply frus­trated be­cause the EU did not support Turkey’s plan to es­tab­lish a buf­fer zone in Syria. Worse still, some mem­bers of the EU are sup­port­ing Turkey’s neme­sis, the Syr­ian Kur­dish PYD, which is an off­shoot of the PKK, and even open­ing of­fices for it in their coun­tries.

Iron­i­cally, how­ever, for all the mu­tual dis­il­lu­sion­ment the in­ter­de­pen­dence be­tween the two par­ties grew stronger. This was ev­i­denced in the lat­est Syr­ian refugee cri­sis: the EU needs Turkey des­per­ately to halt the wave of refugees mov­ing to­ward Europe, while Turkey needs the EU for fi­nan­cial support. The EU needs Turkey and es­pe­cially the use of In­cir­lik air base for com­bat­ing ISIS, while Turkey needs the EU against the back­ground of its de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tions with Rus­sia. In fact at this point in time it seems that Turkey has more ef­fec­tive lever­age vis-a-vis the EU than vice versa. Thus, fol­low­ing Ger­many’s recog­ni­tion of the 1915 Ar­me­nian geno­cide in early June 2016, Er­do­gan warned the EU: “Ei­ther we find so­lu­tions to our prob­lems in a fair way, or Turkey will stop be­ing a bar­rier in front of the prob­lems of Europe... we will leave you to your own wor­ries.”

True, the EU has still the lever­age of Turkey’s ac­ces­sion, but it is quite pos­si­ble Ankara is no longer so ea­ger to join the club; it may not think it is worth the ef­fort of chang­ing its po­lit­i­cal cul­ture for it, or may have de­spaired of be­com­ing a mem­ber. For its part, the EU seems to have de­spaired of its abil­ity to pres­sure Turkey on democ­racy, hu­man rights and a peace­ful so­lu­tion to the Kur­dish prob­lem.

With the wave of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism en­gulf­ing Turkey at present it is un­likely that the new Turk­ish gov­ern­ment of Bi­nali Yildirim will be more forth­com­ing in ful­fill­ing EU con­di­tions for the ac­ces­sion. The gap be­tween Turkey and the EU in the realm of ide­o­log­i­cal/po­lit­i­cal cul­ture is thus widen­ing rather than clos­ing. In­deed, ex­cept for eco­nomic ties, the com­mon in­ter­ests seem to be di­rected more to­ward neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive tar­gets: stop­ping the wave of refugees, com­bat­ing ISIS and con­tain­ing Rus­sia. What we might be wit­ness­ing in the future there­fore is not the prover­bial clash of civ­i­liza­tions be­tween the Chris­tian and the Mus­lim worlds but rather an in­ter­twined re­la­tion­ship mov­ing from strong fric­tion to at­tempts at de­vel­op­ing a modus operandi.

The au­thor is se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Moshe Dayan Cen­ter of Tel Aviv Univer­sity, and au­thor of The Turk­ish-Is­raeli Re­la­tion­ship: Chang­ing ties of Mid­dle East­ern Out­siders.

TURK­ISH PRES­I­DENT Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan speaks to a crowd in Stras­bourg last Oc­to­ber. (Reuters)

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