Meeting the Geopolitical Challenges of the Arab Spring: A call for a joint EU-Turkish Agenda

Meeting the Geopolitical Challenges of the Arab Spring: A call for a joint EU-Turkish Agenda

GÜNTER VERHEUGEN Former EU Commissioner for Enlargement
As close neighbors of the EU and Turkey, the Arab countries possess political, economic and social importance. Since Turkey and the EU have a vested interest in seeing stability and strong economic development in their shared neighborhood, they need to cooperate with these countries during the challenging transition phase in order to ensure peace in this volatile region of the world.

Given the overlapping interests, they need to develop a common strategy to combine their strengths and advantages while offsetting weaknesses. The transition countries are clearly looking for an example that can inspire their own development. Turkey is the only country capable of playing this role and has many opportunities to do so.

Turkey has successfully demonstrated that a country with a predominantly Muslim population can fully implement the core values driving the Arab Spring: democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and protection of minorities. In developing relations with the Arab world, Turkey’s strongest advantage is its religion and culture, a factor whose importance should not be underestimated. Indeed, because of its cultural background, religion and geographic proximity, Turkey benefits from easier access to these countries than do the countries of Western Europe or elsewhere. While playing a leading role, Turkey must avoid behaving as a regional superpower that seeks to dominate others. This would be a terrible mistake and could lead to new tensions. Turkey can play a leadership role only by setting an example, offering help, sharing best practices and giving guidance if wanted. 

Turkey would need to be strongly supported in these efforts, and the EU is a potential partner. In order for the EU not only to play its own role but also to support Turkey’s part in facilitating this transformation process, it must develop a comprehensive foreign policy, which for the moment is lacking. Nonetheless, the sway of the Union in the Arab world is sufficient to justify its role in this transformation, especially if member states and EU institutions manage to coordinate their policies and harness the traditional influence of certain member states.

Turkey and the EU should combine their efforts, define their shared political and economic interests, and develop a common strategy specifying relevant policy tools to jointly address the geopolitical challenges. A candid look at the situation in the Arab world shows that there is a strong need for the EU and Turkey to build a much closer relationship in this shared neighborhood. If developments take a negative turn, thereby endangering peace, there will obviously be a need to cooperate; if events proceed in the right direction, meaning toward democratic transformation, it is in our mutual interest to make it succeed.

Although Turkey has adopted a pro-democracy position, it lacks an explicit democratization agenda, and it has not developed tools similar to the EU’s conditionality policy to promote transformation in a third country. The EU, in contrast, has accumulated experience on how to achieve such change and is equipped with the instruments to do so. Given their respective advantages, the EU and Turkey could combine their strengths: Turkey’s better access to the region on the one hand and the EU’s instruments and experience in inducing positive change on the other hand. This is an obvious case for far-reaching cooperation and calls for closer policy coordination between the two sides.

If the EU and Turkey managed to cooperate on such a geopolitically important project, it would have an enormous additional benefit: revitalizing the stalled accession process and lending it a sense of urgency and importance. We can use the new geopolitical situation in the Middle East and Africa to create new momentum for Turkey-EU relations. Working together towards inducing a positive transformation in transition countries offers the best opportunity to revitalize the partnership.

Europeans must be patient and uphold their decision that Turkey shall become a member of the EU, while Turks should acknowledge that the political circumstances inside the EU can change relatively quickly. In less than two years, a completely different political picture might emerge in key European countries, creating more favorable conditions to further the membership process.

*Günter Verheugen is former EU Commissioner for Enlargement. The article is adapted from a policy brief published by IPLI and TEPAV, available at: