Turkey, the EU and the Middle East

Turkey, the EU and the Middle East

Turkey has been under criticism for some time for becoming too involved in Middle Eastern affairs, thus distancing itself from the European Union and generally the Western world.

Of course, it takes two to tango, and it’s a fact that Turkey’s inclination to get more involved in Middle East affairs coincides with strong messages from within the EU from the mid-2000s onward that Turkey was not wanted as a full member.

There was also the Arab Spring factor, which excited (then Prime Minister, now President) Tayyip Eroğan about a “democratic Islamic” political wave, probably to be led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. That did not happen. Turkey is now hosting some 1.6 million Syrian refugees and dealing with terrible border security problems, especially after the emergence of a new-generation wave of terror by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

A recent poll showed that more than 50 percent of Turks supported the EU membership target, after much lower results over the last three years.

After being elected president and promoting Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as his successor in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), Erdoğan decided to try to get closer to the EU once again. Bringing Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, a former president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, to the Foreign Ministry, and former diplomat Volkan Bozkır as the new EU minister, were among the indications of the government’s renewed will to resume relations.

Despite accumulated problems and the widening gap between Turkey and the EU, the government seems happy to have got a positive response from Brussels to its moves, reflected in the Dec. 8 meeting in Ankara.

The EU delegation yesterday had a high-level profile. It was headed by Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; who came with Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner Responsible for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations; and Christos Stylianides, the EU Commissioner Responsible for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.

This was an interesting combination, because Styliandes is Cypriot and the Cyprus issue remains the biggest problem between the EU and Turkey. A number of negotiation chapters cannot be opened because of the Greek Cypriot veto.

However, Mogherini expressed hope that chapter 17 on financial policies could be opened soon, as France had lifted its block on it.

But Cyprus is not the whole story. Hopes are fading in Turkey and the EU generally about full integration within the current EU structure. More people think Turkey might have a place in a multi-speed Europe, perhaps based on the use of the euro as a national currency.

There are mixed signals from Ankara in political and social terms, too.

As Mogherini and her team were carrying out talks with their Turkish hosts, President Erdoğan was delivering a speech praising the possible introduction of compulsory Ottoman Turkish (Turkish with the Arabic script) classes in schools. The Education Ministry also adopted a result from a recent conference that said compulsory religious education should start from the very first grade, despite a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that such moves discriminated against non-Sunni Muslims.

Erdoğan has been developing a “take me as I am” kind of policy in recent years, as he wins successive elections and his party becomes increasingly dominant in politics.

Turkey may fit more into a multi-speed EU model, so this could be something to be considered in the long run. Either way, the Ankara talks yesterday were useful to revive relations that have been frosty for the last few years.