Matthew Dotzler, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
Turkey is a bridge between Europe and the Eastern world, with one foot firmly planted in the culture and history of the Ottoman Empire and the other reaching for a perch among Western states. The founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, dreamed of a Turkish state that would be recognized by Western nations as equals following the First World War. However, over a century later, the West and Turkey share a hesitant relationship. The West holds Turkey at arm’s length, using the relationship when convenient, but closing the door when Turkey asks for a more solid commitment. A decade of failed negotiations with the European Union (EU) opened a rift between Turkey and the continent.
Looking critically at the EU’s relationship with Turkey, years of half hearted discussions and false promises have taken their toll. Under the leadership of an authoritarian president, Turkey is beginning to question seriously if it needs a foothold in the West at all. Since Turkey’s independence, the door to Europe has always been ajar, but their entry has been blocked, a fact that Russia is now capitalizing on. With the rift widening, it is up to the EU to show Turkey they can accommodate Turkey’s needs.
Turkey and the EU have been in accession talks since the early 2000s. The purpose of the talks was to admit Turkey into the EU and strengthen their ties to the European continent. For Turkey, EU membership offered not only economic opportunity, but also the chance to be recognized as equals by European powers. However, in a show of force, opposition states tanked accession talks in 2006. A significant portion of EU states saw Turkey as too burdensome and poor to make the investment worth it. Additionally, oppositional EU states argued that Turkish democracy was flawed and that they were not ready to be part of Europe, a sentiment echoed by German officials in August. Statements like these call into question a more distressing issue: the cultural differences between a largely Christian Europe and predominantly Muslim Turkey. Europe is wary of a country with strong Islamic culture and Ottoman roots. As prejudice against Islamic culture continues to grow in Europe and far right parties in Europe garner support, Turkey may be subject to unfair discrimination.
Fast forward a decade and we find not only that Turkey’s exclusion from the EU has continued, but that talks between Turkey and the European Council, which sets the EU’s political agenda, are once again suspended. Most notable among the current complaints is concern over an unsuccessful coup in July followed by a controversial referendum, which allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to change the constitution, giving him significantly expanded powers. Western media outlets condemned the changes and labeled the president a dictator. The wedge between the Turkish regime and the West appears stuck. Recent spats between Erdoğan and European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have done little to mend the rift.
Of Missiles and Men
Erdoğan and his regime are growing tired of increasing allied criticism and they’ve begun to seek support elsewhere. Turkey’s frustrations though are not limited to the just the EU as a governing body, but also with European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey has been a strategic location for storing weapons and troops for decades, and, while the alliance has been more than happy to exploit the country’s location, arguably little has been done to support the nation.
Last month, Turkey controversially purchased S-400 missiles from Russia, which shook the alliance and may be an indication that things are not as stable as hoped. This purchase follows the 2015 decision of Germany and the US to remove Patriot Missile systems from Turkey. According to the New York Times, US military leaders argued with their German counterparts that the missile systems could be better used elsewhere given the threat of incoming missiles from the Syrian civil war had declined. This left Turkey feeling vulnerable to attack. Turkish leaders decided that, if NATO will not assist in defending Turkey from outside threats, then other avenues of security must be pursued, such as the S-400 missiles from the Kremlin.
Given the concern over Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, there is legitimate fear that Russia may be succeeding in undermining the NATO alliance. NATO was designed to build a military buffer zone against Russian aggression and the Kremlin sees the organization as a threat. A destabilized NATO poses a threat to the security and continued unity of EU member states. It is within the interest of Europe to cater to Turkish interests and close all possible avenues of Kremlin interference in Eastern Europe.
The Path Forward
The EU cannot afford to allow the relationship between Russia and Turkey to grow stronger. It needs to take a strong and definitive tone with its own members when it comes to Turkish accession and follow through on its promises. Years of half-hearted discussion and false promises have done little to improve relations, and now such mistakes are being used to galvanize the far right in Turkey. There is no overlooking the fact that Erdoğan is taking Turkey in a direction away from democracy and fails to meet basic standards of human rights for minority populations, but these issues will only get worse if Erdoğan pulls away from Europe entirely.
Instead, the EU should re-evaluate their approach to accession talks and put in place a progressive plan of action that would set obtainable goals for Turkey once they are admitted to the EU. Under the mentorship of member states and with clear goals in mind, Turkey would have the opportunity grow while benefiting from inclusion in the single market. If Turkey were added as a member, it is possible that with the economic opportunities and other benefits of EU membership such as ideas and political influence, the situation in Turkey may change and allow for human rights issues to be addressed. More could be done with Turkey on the inside than by leaving it open to Russian influence. This is not to say that Turkey should receive a free pass; instead there should be hard expectations that if Turkey’s government violates, their membership will be revoked. Europe needs to remember though that Erdoğan will not last forever, nor should he be the defining character of the Turkish spirit and its potential for progress. There is more to be gained by allowing the people of Turkey to grow, benefit, and learn than there is to condemn them to the margins based off the failures of one man.
The grievances between Turkey and the West will not be mended in a day, but a show of sincerity by the EU will go a long way to make sure that Turkey’s gaze remains fixed and does not stray towards the the destabilizing influence of the East.