Turkey's relationship with Europe and the United States remains a sensitive issue on all sides and requires urgent resolution. While Turkey still wants to pursue its long-standing strategic goal of a closer relationship with Europe, many European countries remain uncertain about how to manage the relationship in future years despite decades of successful military and economic partnership with Turkey. Unfortunately, the challenge of thinking through how to build a successful, mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with Turkey is not a top priority for EU countries at present. The Eurozone members are engaged in daily crisis management with Greece, while the EU 28 are also struggling to retain a consensus to face down the new security challenges posed by Russia. Paradoxically though, Europe is also experiencing first-hand the consequences of instability in the Middle East as hundreds of thousands of people try to flee across the Mediterranean in search of safe and more prosperous lives. This is where Turkey has the potential to play a key role by bolstering the European Union’s understanding of the region, and expanding its relationships and overall capabilities for delivering effective assistance to countries such as Libya that Turkey knows so well from its history.
Officially, Turkey continues to seek European Union membership and started accession negotiations with the European Union in October 2005. Despite it now being nearly a decade since accession negotiations began, only minimal progress has been achieved. Several of the 33 accession chapters remain blocked by various EU members for political reasons. Some Turkey-friendly voices in Europe have started to wonder if the Union’s and Turkey’s interests would not be better served by seeking to broaden and deepen the bilateral relationship outside the constraints of membership negotiations. At a time of continuing civil war in Syria, broader instability in the Middle East, and the need to re-galvanise NATO to dissuade Russia from further undermining the European security order, the time is ripe for both Europe and the United States to work together to re-engage Turkey in an effective security partnership to jointly address today’s problems.
Turkey has the potential to play a key role by bolstering the European Union’s understanding of the region.
Skeptics in Europe who doubt Turkey’s democratic credentials should put their concerns aside. The results of the June 7 parliamentary election saw the ruling AKP party lose its parliamentary majority and have again underscored that Turkey has a vibrant democracy with a majority of its citizens committed to keeping it that way. Forming a governing coalition is going to be a major challenge, with success far from guaranteed because of the deep divisions across the political spectrum. Yet voters have spoken, and even if a fresh election is required, Turkey’s politicians will have to heed the message that the electorate wants its leaders to remain accountable
Continued political and economic stability in Turkey can provide a strong platform for the European Union and the United States to help stabilize the region to Turkey’s south. With the Syrian crisis heading into its fifth year and Islamic State’s (IS) control of the country expanding, Turkey should be a linchpin in this process. Turkey is not passively observing the Syrian conflict from across its 822 km shared border with Syria. It has taken in more 1.7 million of an estimated three million refugees from Syria—more than any other country. It has already spent more than US$5.5 billion and costs are continuing to rise, placing a significant strain on the country’s resources. Sadly, there appears to be no end in sight as the fighting in Syria continues in the absence of any peace plan, so Turkey is unlikely to be freed from this burden any time soon. Turkey’s NATO allies and European partners need to take note of the lengths to which Turkey has gone to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and they should offer economic assistance to Ankara as part of a broader western contribution to addressing the problem. Turkey cannot shoulder this burden on its own.
European countries should show much greater readiness to accept refugees themselves. More broadly, the United States needs to work with the new government to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the threat from IS, including enhanced border security. More diplomatic efforts need to be put into to aligning US and Turkish strategies for addressing the situation in Syria and, in particular, resolving the issue of expanding US access to Turkey’s ?ncirlik Air Base so that it can better target IS with air strikes. Similarly, the European Union needs to do much more to benefit from Turkey’s vast experience of managing its ties in the Middle East and to develop the policies that will promote better governance and development in a region that delivers economic performance far below its potential.
Now is the time for the European Union and the United States to work with Turkey to kick start a deeper and more substantial relationship.
Missing this opportunity to strengthen the relationship with Turkey is likely to have consequences for the United States and Europe. Turkey has other potential allies with whom it can foster stronger relations if it senses that roads to the West are blocked. Both Europe and the United States have recently criticized Turkey for cooperating with Russia to build a gas pipeline and for buying missile defense systems from China. These criticisms are a reminder that western countries are not offering Turkey effective solutions to its problems. If Europe and the United States want Turkey to stop or reduce its collaboration with Russia or China, then they need to do a better job in offering support.
Turkey has been working consistently for nearly a century to build stronger ties to Europe and the US. Any relationship has its tough moments, but we need to remember that this partnership was formed to give Turkey an anchor in the western world. Now is the time for the European Union and the United States to work with Turkey to kick start a deeper and more substantial relationship to address the strategic challenge to Turkey’s south. Turkey’s problems are our problems.