Turkey and the EU: Building on a shaky bridge

What we might be witnessing in the future therefore is not the proverbial clash of civilizations between the Christian and the Muslim worlds.

Supporters wave flags and hold a portrait of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan outside the AK Party headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey November 1, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters wave flags and hold a portrait of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan outside the AK Party headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey November 1, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.