Turks care more about democracy than visa free travel

Turks care more about democracy than visa free travel

Have you seen Kadir Has University’s latest Survey of Perspectives on Turkish Foreign Policy? Well, I find its results rather interesting. Some 55 percent of Turks think that Turkey needs to be more active in the Middle East. Further, around half think that in the post-Arab Spring atmosphere, the United States is the most powerful country in the Middle East. Yet the American activities in the region are perceived as a security threat; 41 percent of Turks state that the U.S. is not to be trusted. Overall, the negative evaluation of the U.S. has increased to 67 percent this year. 

Our hopes now lie with the European Union, mind you. Some 62 percent of Turks would like Turkey to become a part of the EU. This marks a significant increase from 2015’s results, in which only 42 percent of the population favored EU membership. However, as much as they want to become a part of the EU, every two out of three Turks still believes that Turkey will not be allowed into the EU club due to religious-cultural discrepancies. In a way, the prospects of EU membership are a bit like an emotional roller coaster for us Turks, darting from heartbreak to hope and back again to heartbreak. 

“We will decrease the number of our enemies and increase the number of our friends,” said Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım just last week. He summarized the current Turkish foreign policy stance in a nutshell. The Kadir Has survey’s results put a lot of things into perspective, if you ask me. Turks are not happy with what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, especially in Syria. Just look at the lousy support levels for Turkish Middle Eastern and Syrian policy: 17.1 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively. I consider this a direct result of the realities on the ground in Syria. 

The Syrian crisis was, and still is, a litmus test for Turkish foreign policy. The Syrian quagmire has ensured the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has evolved into an important ally of our allies. But make no mistake; the Syrian Kurdish PYD shares the same arsenal and manpower with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its Turkish Kurdish ally. So if being an ally of your ally makes one your ally, then the enemy of your ally’s ally should also have become your enemy. What does that make Turkey to the U.S. in the end? Complicated, to say the least. The numbers in the survey reflect that complexity and frustration, if you ask me. 

Let me go back to the “increasing the number of our friends and decreasing the number of our enemies” stance. Does that signify a change in Turkish foreign policy now? Not really. Turkish foreign policy changed some time ago, if you ask me. It has already become more realistic and less romantic. I tend to see it as the policy of “breaking the axis of evil.” Remember the term? Bush II used the term in his 2002 State of the Union Address to define the countries that are on the side of terrorism in his war on terror. It was just after 9/11. That term led to devastating U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But not much has changed, mind you. Now Turkey has been trying to break its own axis of evil and I find the country rather successful so far. The revived EU engagement agenda of 2015, as well as the Cyprus and Israel moves, were all part of the same package. Turkey has already become more realistic and less romantic.

Yıldırım has just confirmed that the Turkish policy of breaking the axis of evil is still alive and kicking. Good for the migration deal. Good for a prospective domestic reconciliation in Turkey. Are you wondering why the support for EU membership jumped from 42 to 62 percent in a year? Because during the same period, the belief that EU membership would contribute to the democratization of Turkey and improve the rule of law in the country has significantly increased. Just consider this: the share of Turks who think EU membership’s most important contribution to Turkey would be visa-free travel is 40 percent. In contrast, the share of Turks who believe that the EU membership’s primary contribution would be the “development of democracy” is 48 percent. 

What does this tell us? It tells us that Turks care more about the EU’s transformative power over institutions and rule of law – more than they care about visa free travel. So, it is time for the EU to more deeply and wholeheartedly engage with Turkey. Our friends in Brussels and all European capitals need to understand that “action speaks louder than words.”