Europe needs a Turkey strategy
The European Parliament has recommended to the European Commission a temporary freeze of accession negotiations with Turkey. The resolution was approved overwhelmingly with 479 “yes” votes. Some say that the resolution is all bark and no bite, and that the EP is just trying to be important. I don’t think so. I think it’s indicative of long-standing strategic blindness in Brussels, and it will have serious consequences.
The decision itself of course, is not binding and does not contain anything that would substantially hurt Turkey at this stage. As the ever-insightful Gerald Knaus noted, the resolution is a freeze to a process that wasn’t moving forward anyways. “In the last six years, on average, one chapter has been opened every two years. Hence saying that no chapter will be opened in the next year or two is not a very strong statement.” So why should we care?
The resolution effectively sets the tone for the December summit and, in this way, serves its purpose. I gather that Martin Schultz, the president of the EP, has made Turkey into something of a hot potato for the December summit. A hot potato especially in the hands of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is trying to find a solution to the migration issue. It is no secret that Martin Schultz is thinking of returning to German politics as a potential challenger to a much-weakened, but still formidable Chancellor in 2017. One way of doing that would be to portray Merkel as a collaborator to the “reviled Turkish dictator,” while presenting himself as the “valiant defender of European values” in the EP. Considering how important the migration issue was in Brexit, and how critical it seems to be in France these days, his strategy could play out rather well with German voters.
Does this mean that Turkey is an innocent bystander getting caught up with the corrupt politics of old Europe? Of course not. Turkey is a country with weak institutions, which means that politics here is a blood sport. I have noted elsewhere that the state of emergency (SoE) a la Turca, combined with weak institutions, is double trouble amid grave problems concerning the rule of law in the country. Yet the level of Gülenist infiltration is unprecedented in modern history. Ankara freaked out after the failed coup, and the SoE was the only vehicle available to carry out the purge they felt they needed. It’s like treating cancer with an ax, but if that’s all you have, you do your best with it.
This is precisely the reason why Turkey desperately needs the European transformation machine: to strengthen its institutions. Just last week, a court arrested the veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Türk, 75, who had been in and out of the Turkish Parliament since the 1970s. The death spiral that Turkey temporarily stopped during the time of its EU accession process, is now back in full force. “Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first deprives of their senses,” says Euripides, summarizing a theme of the Greek tragedies. Turkey needs the European anchor to get its senses back. Everybody who is somebody in Ankara knows that the current situation is unsustainable at best.
European strategists don’t see a partner in Turkey, they see a wild horse that needs to be broken. It used to be that they used carrots and sticks to do this, and to some extent that shaped Turkey’s behavior. When that stopped working, they put away the carrots and just beat the horse, more out of frustration than any meaningful purpose.
Europe now needs to understand that Turkey is not something external to it. It is no wild horse, but an important actor in its domestic politics. Turkey is a large Muslim country with a huge diaspora in Europe. It is a sensitive membrane between Europe and Middle Eastern and Asian refugees. It is also the forward position in the Western war against terrorism in these parts of the world, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda and other groups that will doubtless be created in the future. These things are intimately related to what happens within Europe. Erdoğan’s decisions could play a major role in determining who governs in Berlin and Paris by the end of this year.
European leaders need to go back to the drawing board on their Turkey policy. They need to make the effort to engage with Turkey, rather than try to tame it. An approach that is a little more balanced would mean fewer “do this and don’t do this ever” items, and more “let’s get this done” items. This is why March’s deal to stem the flow of irregular migrants and deaths across the Eastern Mediterranean, despite its flaws, has been successful beyond expectations.
Turkey and Europe have been cooperating for centuries, and EU negotiations have been going on for decades. There is a lot to lose here. Turkey has, for example, completed 71 out of 72 benchmarks to lift visa restrictions. That looks like a pretty good performance to me, almost a done deal. If you mean business that is.
Much will depend on whether President Erdoğan is invited to the European Summit this December, and how Europe’s leaders will approach him. Will they be national politicians, or will they be global statesmen?