Turkey to extract opportunities out of many crises
MEHMET ÖĞÜTÇÜ - STEPHEN JONESThere is a Chinese word for “crisis,” which is the same as that for “opportunity.” So many crises are unfolding in Turkey’s backyard, posing serious security and economic challenges. Yet, perhaps no country more than Turkey could potentially benefit or enhance its position if it manages them with foresight and the smart “soft power” instruments at hand.
One area is quite obvious in this regard. Turkey’s prospects for closer political ties with the European Union have rarely looked more promising than they do now at a time when it has emerged as a regional superpower, with global clout from Beijing to Berlin and Moscow to Mecca.
Its near-trillion-dollar economy, its unique strategic location and, arguably, the most capable military in the region are giving the EU cause to see Turkey, and its future relationship with the country, through fresh eyes.
Meanwhile, the EU is beset by seemingly endless and multiplying crises. Russia’s assertive pursuit of its interests in its “near abroad” and elsewhere is posing unprecedented security challenges to Europe. Systemic problems of competitiveness and an ageing population are now compounded by serious internal tensions as the European project risks fracture.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” project across Eurasia underlines the economic challenge (and opportunity) to Europe on its doorstep. The Middle East and the Gulf are caught in a maelstrom of rapid social, economic and geopolitical shifts, which are being compounded by Iran’s re-emergence on the world stage.
And the global energy system is moving toward a new world order in which traditional models of supply, demand, technology investment and geopolitics are being overturned.
Whatever the future configuration of EU-Turkey relations, a permanent settlement this year in Cyprus after 42 years of division would be a game-changer. A reunited island with Turkish Cypriot representation in government would add fresh impetus to Turkey’s improving relations with Brussels.
Perhaps the most important aspect of EU-Turkey relations, therefore, is to define the context in which they are conducted. Both sides should play down expectations of EU membership for now. The focus should be on developing areas of common interest without allowing the controversial issue of accession to keep poisoning the political and economic environment. A pragmatic approach to cooperation could result in smoothing the path to accession sooner than expected in a reformed EU.
Turkey’s sphere of influence is unstable and chaotic. Russia’s presence in Syria, the dispatch of military reinforcements to patrol the Turkey-Armenia border and naval build-up in the Black Sea and Caspian basin underlines the need to search for new allies. Ankara has already begun to patch up differences with Israel and could seek a gradual rapprochement with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt. A revival of strategic ties with Washington and Brussels is accompanied by intensified dialogue with Beijing, Delhi, the Gulf and a push into new markets in Africa.
Turkey possesses negligible hydrocarbon resources of its own, with 98 percent dependence on imported gas, 55 percent of which comes from Russia. But its potential as a regional energy hub (including LNG) and key transit country for supplies from Iran, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and the eastern Mediterranean remains strong.
Turkish Stream, which was an idea advanced entirely by Gazprom and announced with fanfare by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara in December 2014, may now be dead in the same way that Putin himself killed South Stream, Turkish Stream’s predecessor. It is heartening to see that Commissioner Maros Sefcovic has extended an invitation for Ankara to join as a full member of the Energy Union.
The EU-Russia impasse may not last much longer, but while it does, Turkey should seek to fill the gap, especially as a facilitator in the energy sector and a strong security provider in a neighborhood so critical for the EU but where the union has largely failed to achieve or even articulate its goals. The tension with Russia has underlined Turkey’s strategic vulnerability as well as its possibilities. The union’s appetite for even greater dependence on Russian gas is waning, despite the attractiveness of the Nord Stream II project.
Moving ahead, Turkey’s priority should be to envision a realistic end destination of its 57-year flirtation with what has become the EU. This will help Ankara to maximize the benefits of its relationship with Brussels, which will in turn sharpen its focus on other elements of its multifaceted foreign policy – its membership of NATO, its relations with an America in political transition and its ambitions to show leadership of an Islamic world suffering an image problem amid the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) brutality, the Syrian civil war and the migration crisis.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, a positive approach to reuniting Cyprus under a mutually acceptable arrangement (which requires a mindset change in Greek Cyprus) would generate much goodwill in Brussels and reinforce Turkey’s strategic position with regard to the gas fields off the island’s coast and beyond in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey can now approach its EU policy from a position of strength and self-interest. Decisions taken this year in Ankara and Brussels will have a generational and transformational effect, and Washington must support this reinvigoration of ties, with the TTIP as a carrot. It is important for Turkey that those decisions are dispassionate, reflectively and for the long term – based on a realignment of realpolitik, democracy, free markets and mutual interests.
Mehmet Öğütcü is the chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club and Stephen Jones is a partner with Global Resources Communications, UK.