Turkey, European Union and NATO

November 14, 2016

“Turkey’s traditional foreign policy, bitterly criticized by the present Government for having betrayed Turkey’s potential, stood on pillars. Our relations with the United States and the European Union constituted the first two. A third one was our relations with our neighbors and the region. Prominently among those was Russia. Since the world is in a constant process of transformation Turkey was searching for new pillars to add to the existing ones. Relations with China, India and other emerging powers offered new prospects.

“Turkish foreign policy’s success depends on every one of these pillars being strong. Had Turkey not been a member of NATO, maintained excellent relations with the US, started an accession process with the EU and enjoyed the trust of neighboring countries, we would have confined ourselves in a corner. The EU accession process, in spite of all the difficulties, added a positive dimension to our regional role. Our relations with region were an asset for the EU. In other words, our foreign policy pillars do not constitute alternatives. On the contrary, together, they support the same structure…” (*)

Our joining the Council of Europe and NATO in 1949 and 1952 respectively, and the launching of the EU accession process in 2005 have provided a progressive institutional framework for Turkey’s relations with the West. At present, all three are experiencing foreshocks. The mood is “with friends like this, who needs enemies”.

Our relationship with the Council of Europe has had its ups and downs particularly after coups in Turkey but promises of early return to democracy helped avoid ruptures. Relations with the EU have always been problematic, characterized by ambivalence if one is to remain an optimist. Our NATO membership, on the other hand, has provided us with a full-fledged seat in an enduring alliance which remains the cornerstone of Western solidarity. Now, however, lack of good chemistry between the EU and Turkey has started to adversely affect our relations with NATO. To a certain extent this is understandable. After all, here we have two buildings only a few kilometers apart in Brussels. At one we are an ally or at least treated as one and at the other we are seen as an irritant if not an adversary. And, since 22 of the 28 members of NATO are EU countries, it seems that drawing a line between the two is becoming increasingly difficult.  Moreover, Ankara’s relations with Washington are also far from being smooth.

Lately, Turkey’s controversies with the US, NATO and the EU have taken an upward trend. Ankara, though in not so many words, is accusing Washington and NATO of condoning if not orchestrating the coup attempt of July 15, and some European countries of supporting the PKK. Last week the European Commission published its “Turkey 2016 Report”. It starts with the sentence “Turkey remains a key partner for the European Union”. But, if it were to be summarized in one word that would be “backsliding” in so far as Turkey’s democratic performance is concerned. Ankara can’t possibly be pleased with the report. Last week European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri said that the EU could freeze accession talks with Turkey. Ankara’s reaction was “why don’t you!”

In retrospect, one of EU’s major foreign and security policy mistakes was blunting whatever momentum Turkey’s accession process had. It goes without saying that this was also Turkey’s failure to continue with democratic reform. 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 the best channel for promoting democracy in the region, leading by example. And, Turkey and the EU would have engaged in more genuine cooperation to deal with Middle East turmoil going beyond a controversial “refugee deal” with an uncertain future.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government, on the other hand, enraged by a string of foreign policy failures most of which are its own doing, is issuing ultimatums in every direction. Soon there would be no more bridges to burn and JDP’s precious loneliness would turn into self-inflicted isolation. Further deterioration of relations with the EU, particularly with Germany will not serve Turkey’s interests for obvious reasons. Ankara may have good grounds for being frustrated with the EU or individual EU member states but these must be addressed through diplomatic channels rather than the media. And, if Turkey is indeed a “key partner” for Europe then the Europeans should also do some soul-searching. Under current circumstances even damage control would be an achievement.

The government needs to be even more careful in its relations with NATO. It says that it is determined to have seats at the Iraq and Syria tables when time comes. Despite uncertainties raised by Donald Trump’s election, the Alliance remains West’s leading forum of political and security significance where Turkey already has a seat. Depriving ourselves of the privileges of NATO membership would be tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot. Turkey’s and NATO’s commitment to stand by each other should not become more questionable than it already is.


(*) Quo Vadis Turkey, February 3, 2015.








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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