EU will have to decide how to handle Turkey

EU will have to decide how to handle Turkey

A move that Turkey had been expecting to come from Europe actually came from the U.S., catching Ankara by surprise.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been bashing European capitals for what he sees as their lack of cooperation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Fetullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ). Despite similar complaints about Washington, Erdoğan has generally avoided directly targeting the U.S. administration.

The arrest and detention of European and U.S. citizens in Turkey, which is perceived by Ankara’s foreign interlocutors as a “hostage policy,” started amid this criticism. But even in the recent German election campaign, Chancellor Angela Merkel did not target Turkey directly despite the arrest of a number of German citizens in Turkey. Even when German MPs were not allowed to visit German soldiers deployed at the İncirlik air base in southern Turkey, Merkel decided against taking direct action against Turkey. She instead simply withdrew German soldiers and transferred them to a base in Jordan.

In contrast, the U.S. has showed zero tolerance to the escalation in “hostage-taking,” presenting a strong reaction when a second Turkish national working for U.S. missions in Turkey came under arrest.

The interest of the public in Germany and the United States in relations with Turkey is also incomparable. While Merkel is under constant scrutiny in terms of relations with Ankara, the same is not the case for U.S. President Donald Trump.

Still, the fact that Washington has taken the move to suspend visa services in Turkey will put further pressure on Merkel to take a tougher stance against Turkey. While EU leaders will discuss relations with Turkey at a summit meeting on Oct. 19, Merkel has stressed that the summit will not make any final decision on Ankara’s membership bid.

By now it has become clear that the calls to officially end Turkey’s accession talks, which are at a standstill anyway, has not found enough support among the 28 members. But this does not mean that other measures will not be discussed on Oct. 19, and it definitely does not mean that the present stalemate will become the “new normal” and bilateral relations with each EU member will continue on a “business as usual” basis. This will certainly not be the case so long as European nationals remain in prison in Turkey.

So the question of “how to handle Turkey” will still need an answer, even if it is already known that the suspension of its EU membership bid is not the “right” or “desired” answer.

Will the answer lean closer to “contestation” or “engagement”? So far neither contention nor engagement has defined the course of action that the EU has taken in its relations with Turkey, especially since the July 2016 coup attempt. A majority of EU leaders seem convinced that contestation is not the most effective tool to bring about the desired change in Turkey in terms of abiding to democratic standards. They are also aware that contestation has so far only seemed to strengthen the hand of Erdoğan.

However, there is unwillingness to fully opt for engagement because this might be seen as unfairly rewarding Turkey. That would not be taken lightly by European public opinion.

Nevertheless, if there is a general view that contestation will not work it may well be time to seriously try a course of engagement. Engagement does not mean turning a blind eye to the big democratic deficit in Turkey or accepting whatever Ankara wants from its European interlocutors. It simply means starting a meaningful and genuine dialogue to increase cooperation wherever possible, and seeking solutions wherever there are problems.

In that respect, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s Oct. 15 statement that the bloc will strengthen cooperation with Turkey on issues “related to regional dynamics,” while discussing how Brussels and Ankara can coordinate better on Syria and Iraq, should be seen as a positive sign.

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