Turkey’s Troubled Relations with Europe

August 15, 2016

In retrospect, one of EU’s major foreign and security policy mistakes was the blunting of whatever momentum Turkey’s accession process had. It goes without saying that this was also Turkey’s failure. Had both sides acted with foresight, even with an open-ended process, Turkey and the EU could have been at a different point in dealing with today’s myriad of Middle East problems. Turkey would have become a channel for promoting democracy in the region. And, Turkey and the EU would have engaged in more genuine cooperation to deal with the Middle East turmoil, beyond the controversial “refugee deal”.

At present, Turkey’s relations with the EU can at best be described as mutual dislike/distrust. The accession process exits only on paper.

The coup attempt of July 15 seems to have created new tensions with the EU. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) is upset because European governments failed to rush to its support within hours if not minutes, and the European capitals say that government’s reaction must conform to the rule of law. Some are already saying that the accession talks should officially be suspended or ended.

In all fairness, one needs to give Europeans the benefit of the doubt for their “slow reaction” to the coup attempt. They surely had some understanding of what the Gulenist movement was about, but these people had been around for a long time and had worked hand in glove with the JDP for years. It was only after the bloody coup attempt that it dawned upon the JDP leadership that this was an insidious terrorist network and they admitted misjudging its dark ambitions. So, it can reasonably be argued that the European governments may not have grasped within hours what took the JDP government years to understand.

Realizing that “precious loneliness” was not an option, the JDP government took steps towards reconciliation with Israel and Russia. It is clear that improvement in relations with Moscow would come only step by step and carry a hefty price tag on Syria, Ankara’s close friend turned foe. Although hints of similar developments with Egypt were dropped earlier, it is clear that this is going to prove much more difficult.

A country going through a major internal upheaval, like us now, would be wise to avoid new external strains let alone conflicts. Everybody says that ISIL is on the retreat but no one can predict exactly what is to follow when today’s suspect alliances of convenience expire. In other words, ISIL’s defeat on the battlefield will not by itself usher in a period of stability in the Middle East and Turkey will continue to get her share of the turmoil. This is yet another reason why, while conveying to the US, the EU, NATO and the UN whatever grievances it has through diplomatic channels, Ankara needs to avoid bravado. Following the downing of the Russian Su-24, Moscow expressed deep disappointment because their friends in Ankara rushed to NATO before offering some explanation to Russia. But now, it seems that we are not so unhappy with the speculation regarding the possible negative implications for the West of Turkey’s reconciliation with Moscow. The JDP leadership may find it useful for internal political purposes, including the holding of its supporters in state of constant mobilization, to create the impression that it is waging war against foreign powers, dark external forces which are united to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global player. Inspired by their public discourse some even find similarities between Turkey’s current challenges including the latest coup attempt and Turkish War of Independence. This is bad strategy and runs counter to government’s professed new policy of “more friends and fewer enemies”.

Turkish War of Independence, under Ataturk’s leadership, was fought against the victors of the First World War and the Ottoman Sultan who readily accepted defeat. It was an epic struggle which started with Ataturk’s secret landing in the Black Sea port city of Samsun on May 19, 1919 and ended with the proclamation of the modern Turkish Republic on October 29, 1923 which we celebrate as our National Day. What was at stake was not only the inevitable fall of the Ottoman Empire as a result of decades and decades of misrule and incompetence; the victors were even trying to partition today’s Turkey. As a matter of fact, our War of Independence did not end there but continued with far-reaching internal reforms which earned us world’s respect and inspired peoples fighting for national salvation.

The JDP has been in power for fourteen consecutive years and its leadership may wish to earn itself a special place in country’s history. To accomplish this, they do not have to gather an army, fight the victors of a world war, fight foreign invasion, rebuild the country’s foreign and security policy infrastructures and economy from scratch. All they have to do is to upgrade Turkey’s democracy to highest European standards. It is that simple and that easy. And when they accomplish that, if ever, Turkey’s international standing will be so greatly enhanced that joining the EU would be least of our worries.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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