Losing a friend in the EU but gaining a better partner in Europe

Losing a friend in the EU but gaining a better partner in Europe

Irrespective of what U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said during the Brexit campaign about Turkey perhaps not joining the EU for the next several decades, and the street posters frightening the public about the 78 million Turks flocking to the U.K. if the Remain vote was to prevail, the U.K. has been historically a strong friend of Turkey bilaterally, in the transatlantic partnership and as a standard bearer within the EU for Turkey’s ambitions to join the bloc.

Clearly, Turkey has lost its biggest supporter in the EU – not least because all three mainstream parties were in principle strong supporters of Turkey’s eventual membership. Britain’s support was not out of a blind love for Turkey but a calculated understanding of the country’s geopolitical and economic importance – in particular the way in which Turkey, as a country whose population is nearly as large as Germany’s, would further dilute federalist aspirations among the EU’s founding members.

Many Turks feel sad to see the U.K. quitting the EU, and they feel angry that Turkey was used as an instrument by pro-Brexit campaigners. Cameron called his opponents’ strategy a “red herring,” but they managed to corner Cameron into conceding that “at its current pace, Turkey will not join the EU before the year 3000.” This also upset Turkey, which felt Cameron should have been more resolute in following through on his strong support for Turkey in the EU.

Nevertheless, the debate in the U.K. is reflected more widely across the EU, in which even Turkey’s other major allies are now hesitating in their support because of Turkey’s increasingly hardline government and the multitude of crises afflicting the bloc. But Turkey is also inconsistent in its approach – on the eve of Brexit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested Turkey should hold its own plebiscite on whether to pursue membership with an organization wary of Turkey because “the majority of our population are Muslim.”

Whatever we say about its “incompetence, clumsiness, democratic deficit, arrogance, lack of leadership, aging population and loss of global competitiveness,” the EU still remains Turkey’s largest trading partner. It provides the bulk of foreign investment, finance and technology and is home to more than 5 million Turks. It is an anchor for Turkey in a culture of democracy and freedom. We should not exaggerate the EU’s importance, but we should not underestimate it either. 

Brexit might serve as a brake on Turkey’s EU membership, despite the recent resumption of negotiations. Turkey would do well to press quietly on, without baiting or provoking the increasingly powerful anti-Islam and anti-Turkey forces on the political fringes in Europe. Ankara’s priority should be to protect the rights and well-being of its citizens in the EU, using the instruments of institutions including the Council of Europe – of which Turkey remains a full member.

The absence of the U.K., politically and economically, makes the EU significantly less attractive to Ankara. Perhaps Erdoğan will give up altogether on this goal. Britain’s exit from the EU plays into his hands, bolstering his argument that the EU is weak and boosting his now faltering efforts to create a neo-Ottoman Turkey as a leader in the Muslim world.

However, ironically for all those who wanted to keep Britain as far apart from Turkey as possible, Brexit could improve relations between the two countries. Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe – in more ways than one – are united by a growing romantic nationalism. Perhaps Turkey could even pick up some of the trade slack when the U.K. does eventually pull out; investment and exports between the two countries are already high.

We do not know how the U.K. divorce process will progress and what types of EU-U.K. arrangements will be in place after two years of negotiations. Whatever emerges might also be a good example for Turkey to follow. An updated Customs Union, plus free movement of people in certain categories and participation in a number of common policies, could prove to be a more realistic and rewarding option rather than bashing each other constantly for unfilled promises and expectations within the formal framework of EU membership negotiations.

If Turkey can put its membership obsession aside, it could carve out a unique place in the new architecture of the world’s largest economic bloc that is soon to sign the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Yet, for this to happen, Turkey too has to change fundamentally away from its current autocratic governance style, tackling the rise of religious extremism and pursuing a less confrontational foreign policy. There are positive signs on this score, at least in the foreign policy domain.

A more flexible, realistic and self-confident Turkey could be a stronger partner for the EU and could be a bridge to other strategic partnerships – perhaps even to a post-Brexit U.K., Eurasia, China and the Middle East. It could even accelerate the necessary process of fundamental structural reform within the EU, which many observers both in Brussels and Ankara feel is long overdue if the EU is to remain viable and intact in the future.