Realism for Europe and Turkey
BERLIN – Relations between Europe and Turkey have long been characterized by a deep contradiction. Whereas security cooperation (especially during the Cold War) and economic ties have been strong, the vital foundations of democracy – human rights, press freedom, minority rights, and an independent judiciary to enforce the rule of law – have remained weak in Turkey. History, too, has divided the two sides, as the dispute over recognition of the Armenian genocide during World War I attests.
After the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power under Abdullah Gül in 2002 and later under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, these conflicts seemed to have been resolved. During its first years in government, the AKP wanted Turkey to join the European Union and to modernize the economy. And it delivered real reforms – particularly in areas, such as the judiciary, essential to progress toward EU membership.
But Erdoğan always kept open a “neo-Ottoman” option, which would orient Turkey toward the Middle East and the Muslim world. That became evident in 2007, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy together de facto closed the door to EU membership for Turkey, and in a manner that humiliated Erdoğan.
In recent days, however, the fraught relations between Europe and Turkey have taken a bizarre turn. The Turkish government has twice summoned Germany’s ambassador to protest against a short satirical clip about Erdoğan shown on regional German television, even demanding that the clip be banned.
There can be no doubt that Turkey’s skilled and experienced diplomats understand Germans’ relationship with press freedom and freedom of opinion – fundamental values of the EU which Turkey wants to join. The question is how much of this understanding still filters through to President Erdoğan.
Relations could deteriorate further this spring, when Germany’s Bundestag votes on a resolution calling for the mass murder of Armenians in 1915 to be categorized as genocide. The motion will most likely be adopted by a large cross-party majority, aggravating tensions with Erdoğan’s government.
But, despite these recent conflicts, the EU and its member states must not lose sight of the fact that the decades-old partnership with Turkey is of paramount interest to both sides. Now and in the future, Europe needs Turkey, and Turkey needs Europe.
The price for this partnership, however, can never be the abandonment of democratic principles; on the contrary, Turkey urgently needs to institutionalize these principles for the sake of its own modernization. What is required is to focus on sustaining the relationship and reducing tensions as much as possible.
Partnership or not, Europe cannot free itself from its geopolitical neighborhood. Ever since the nineteenth century, Europe has had to deal with the so-called “Eastern question,” which at the outset concerned how to address the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s decline. The Ottoman legacy led to several Balkan wars, which ultimately triggered World War I.
Now, a century later, the Eastern question has returned to Europe, and it is just as dangerous, even if it does not currently entail any risk of war on the continent. The Balkans – an undoubtedly European region – will remain at peace as long as a belief in a future within the EU remains alive. But the Middle East and North Africa are trapped in a power vacuum, giving rise to political crises, civil disorder, war, terror, and untold losses to the economy and human welfare.
America’s intervention in Iraq, followed by the weakening (whether real or perceived) of its security guarantee for the region, has led to open strategic rivalry between the leading Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, and the leading Shia power, Iran. Turkey, too, is involved in that game.
Meanwhile, most Arab states are unable to provide adequate jobs and opportunities to increasingly young populations, fueling support for religious extremism. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is escalating once again, as is Kurdish militancy. And the fighting in Syria (and to a certain extent Iraq), by calling into question the century-old borders established under the WWI-era Sykes-Picot agreement, is destabilizing the region and fueling the seemingly endless flows of refugees making their way to Europe.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria, moreover, raised the specter of a direct military clash with a NATO member state, when Turkey shot down a Russian military plane. Should the Kremlin, which has withdrawn its forces, decide to return, the risk of such a conflict, with all its uncertain consequences, would return as well.
Today’s version of the Eastern question, like the century-old variant, poses enormous risks for Europe’s security. And it could easily culminate in a forsaken and alienated Turkey, isolated on the margins of both Europe and the Middle East, with its democratic potential exhausted by the irresolvable Kurdish question.
Against this backdrop, a clash of values will almost certainly continue to define relations between Europe and Turkey. But, as has been true for a century, much more – both sides’ fundamental security interests – will be in the balance as well.