A reset in Turkey-EU ties requires Ankara’s return to democratic reforms
An overall assessment on the current state of Turkish foreign policy would highlight three main challenges facing Turkey’s security, economic and political interests. All three have, at one point, been linked to each other.
Top of the list are obviously security threats posed by both Iraq and Syria, with the risk of disintegration of both neighboring countries. The fact that both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have never been so close to independent rule is being regarded as a national security matter by Ankara and is pushing the government to take some excessive measures. A tactical alliance with Iran and verbal threats of potential military action into both Iraq and Syria can be seen within this context. In both cases, the support Turkey receives from its traditional Western allies is far from being sufficient. On the contrary, Turkey accuses them of plotting against it by - directly or indirectly - pushing Iraqi and Syrian Kurds to chase after their political objectives.
The second challenge is about the deteriorating relationship between Turkey and the United States. The strategic dimension of the Turkey-U.S. alliance seems to no longer be sufficient to keep a meaningful and healthy dialogue based on mutual interests. On Iraq and Syria, Turkey has chosen to collaborate with Russia and Iran at the expense of abandoning its long-term priority of toppling Bashar al-Assad because of Washington’s insistence on continuing its cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The U.S.’s inaction on Turkey’s demand for Fethullah Gülen’s extradition, the arrest of two Halkbank senior officials, and the arrest warrant issued for former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan are regarded as almost hostile acts in Ankara. Likewise, the arrest of an American pastor, a human rights activist and - most recently - a Turkish citizen working at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, are all seen as revanchist moves in Washington. There are no signs this trend will be reversed soon.
The third problem is Turkey’s problematic relationship with the European Union. The hope that both sides would clean the slate after Turkey’s referendum in April and Germany’s election in September have apparently been disappointed, as it has been proven that the problem is much more structural.
On one side of the coin are the growing populism and xenophobic trends across Europe, which often associate with Turkey-skeptic rhetoric at the hands of narrow-minded and irresponsible politicians. Their impact on further worsening ties between Turkey and Europe is indisputable. On the other side of the coin, however, is the fact that Turkey abandoned its reformist identity long ago, at the cost of brewing undemocratic trends and human rights violations.
In a televised interview on Oct. 3, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, upon a question about the tarnished image of Turkey, admitted the criticisms to this end in the world but underlined that “Turkey can reverse it through its reformist identity.” Çavuşoğlu refers to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) reforms in its early years in the power that allowed the beginning of accession talks with the EU.
The best answer to populist, far right, outdated European politicians would be Turkey’s resumption of a new reform process to let democracy, human rights, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms prevail in this country. This may not immediately remove already existing Turkey-skepticism and prejudices on Turkey in Europe but would allow strengthening societal unity and decrease political polarization. The lifting of the state of emergency, the release of journalists, academics and politicians would be an influential start to this end.
On all these challenges, it would be both rational and relatively easy to begin by fixing ties with the EU, because the government has all the means to hit the road apart from the willingness. A reset of Turkey-EU ties could be possible if and only if the government displays a genuine willingness to readopt democratic reforms.