EU and Turkey: A delicate relationship with regional effects


Dr Hannes Swoboda

● Former President of the S&D Group in the EP

● Member of the IFIMES Advisory Board


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans.Dr Hannes Swoboda, former President of the Group of Progressive Alliance S&D in the European Parliament (EP) and member of IFIMES Advisory Board in his article “EU and Turkey: A delicate relationship with regional effects” presents EU and Turkey relationship before the upcoming Turkey parliamentary elections. His article is published in its entirety.


EU and Turkey: 

A delicate relationship with regional effects


In a few days, Turkey will have important elections, which is very often seen as a test for Erdogan's influence and power. And these elections may be important for the Kurdish conciliation and peace process. At the same time, the European Union and Turkey are finding themselves in a very delicate relationship, which sometimes can be interpreted as a non-relationship. There is no doubt that relations deteriorated over the last years instead of improving. Nobody can say if the EU still wants Turkey as a member (some would even doubt, if the EU as a whole ever wanted Turkey's membership) and it became unclear if Turkey still wants to be member (and here one could doubt, if Turkey ever knew or knows the consequences of membership)! And as neither the EU nor Turkey have an open and frank discussion on the membership and it's consequences our relationship is strongly affected by this uncertainties and unknowns. But at least the most recent opinion poll in Turkey shows a 60% support for EU membership although only 30% believe it will happen.


Torpedoing progress in the negotiations


But Turkey still is a candidate country with all the chances of special financial support and the "disadvantages" of scrutiny by the EU Commission and the EU Parliament and critical reports thereafter. All these reports get often a negative interpretation by the Turkish government and may even deteriorate the relationship. Especially in the European Parliament there are always forces, who deliberately try to amend and even destroy the balanced drafts by the rapporteurs. They come from the Greek part of Cyprus, they are animated by the Armenian diaspora, have anti-Muslim attitudes or just do not like Turkey inside the EU. All draft reports are critical and rightly so, but always they become biased in consequence of some strange "anti - Turkish" alliance across political groups - of course with differently strong support in different groups.


As the Turkish speaking population of Cyprus is still de facto not represented in the EU Parliament there is no counterbalance to the Greek Cypriot concerns  - which partly may be justified as the criticism of the strong immigration from Turkey, which is changing  the population structure -  but are often used to prevent Turkey to advance in its relationship with the EU. It will be interesting to see how the new leader of the Turkish community with his new proposals and compromises can change the Greek Cypriot strict positions, which more than once prevented a united Cyprus as some of the Turkish (military) objections did as well. One cannot clearly recognize, who is more interested in unifying the island: the Greek or the Turkish community.


The effect of the Syrian crisis


Another external factor, which is creating new gaps is the Syrian crisis. Some years ago Turkey and Syria had quite good relations. And the EU tried to negotiate an association agreement with Syria. The human rights issue and the fears of the Syrian nomenclature, which feared to be forced to modernization and liberalization prevented the conclusion of such a treaty.


In the meantime, the relationship between Turkey and Syria deteriorated due to the support of Turkey for the different groups who wanted to get rid of President Assad and his followers. As Europe also expressed clear sympathies for the opponents of Assad this should have strengthened the alliance with Turkey. But Turkey and especially then prime minister and now President Erdogan was very disappointed by the refusal of the EU (and the US) to intervene military or at least strongly arm the opposition. Erdogan who is interested to become the leader - or one of the leaders - of at least the Sunni Islam world, was angry that he was left "alone" by Western leaders in his fight against the Assad regime. This is also one of the reasons for his reluctant alliance in the fight against the Islamic State.


Anti - Muslim attitudes


But of course there were and there are also internal reasons inside Turkey and inside the EU which create obstacles towards better relations between EU and Turkey. Inside the EU the growing anti Muslim attitude, supported by the aftermath of different attacks as those against Charlie Hebdo, has enhanced the already in many countries existing skepticism against Turkey's membership. And this came in addition to the general "enlargement fatigue" already visible since some years. The success of some of the right wing, racist and islamophobic movements gave rise to opposition against a possible Turkish membership and some central parties took over critical points of views against Turkey as a possible member of the European Union.


Changing political priorities in Turkey


This shift in the European public opinion and political attitudes was supported and enhanced by development inside Turkey. The - from an European point of view - development towards an authoritarian or illiberal democracy was "welcomed"  by the opponents of Turkey's membership and strongly criticized by supporters of Turkey, who saw the future membership or at least membership negotiations as a guarantee of human rights and an instrument of stabilizing democracy in Turkey. For them Turkey was and is drifting away from the democratic consensus in Europe especially concerning the freedom of expression by media. The many journalists in prison and threats against them is a clear evidence of that development.


President Erdogan's desire for changes in the Turkish constitution and to establish a presidential system is another proof of structural changes in the Turkish political system. As such to introduce a presidential system is in no way in contradiction to European values or laws. But one can fear for the necessary checks and balances if parallel to the presidential system there will be no effective controlling countervailing power. A strengthening of parliamentary rights or a policy of decentralization with elections for regional assemblies could form such balancing elements. In all democratic presidential systems you have these countervailing and the presidential power limiting elements - from France to the United States. A viable decentralization could also be helpful in "solving" the Kurdish issue. Even if the decentralization is not done according ethnic lines - which it should not be done - it could create the basis for a strong participation of citizens, including those of Kurdish origin, in political power and administration.


There are no singular facts and changes which are endangering a sound democratic development but the sum of such developments which create doubts about the democratic future of Turkey. In addition a one sided change of the Constitution in the direction of a presidential system would be widening the gulf and split inside the country and its political establishment.  Anyway after very productive reforms of democratization to support Turkey's aspiration to join the EU the present leadership seems to have new priorities. They are more connected with embedding the influence of AK Party and of President Erdogan himself in Turkish society. In this respect the Islamization seems less a religious strategy, than a power consideration.


A restart in EU - Turkey relations


All these reasons do not support those who see in Turkey a "lost case" and who want to interrupt or stop permanently the accession negotiations with Turkey. We do not negotiate the membership of President Erdogan or any other politician to join the EU, but it is about Turkey and its population. And irrespective of short term political changes and attitudes Turkey remains a strong and critical factor in a fragile region, which is our common neighbourhood. To evaluate the prospect of future membership or of any other form of alliance and partnership we need to continue and strengthen the negotiations. Only then we can test the different forms of EU - Turkey relations from accession to strategic partnership. But we are far from testing it, as we opened only a few of the chapters necessary for an evaluation of a possible membership.


Neither the fundamental chapters for the rule of law, democracy and Human Rights nor the energy chapter have been opened. Concerning all of these chapters we have a strong interest of Turkish cooperation but the EU is declining to start accession talks -  because of some national resistance from France and Cyprus. And other countries are hiding behind these national vetoes and are happy not to have to express doubts about Turkish membership themselves. We find much hypocrisy and hidden reservations on the European side and a lack of knowledge and clarity on the Turkish side about the consequences of membership for a very proud and nationalistic Turkey. To bring more honesty and clarity into that relationship we would have to enhance and broaden the accession talks.


Parallel to the accession talks we would have to help Turkey in its delicate and fragile situation in our common neighbourhood. The Kurdish issue is not only a Turkish issue. We find Kurds all over the region including Iraq, Syria and Iran. And we find many of them in several European countries not least in Germany and Austria. To combat terrorism in the region and to prevent a spread of terrorism we need a close cooperation with Turkey. That is easier said than done. Turkey under Erdogan as prime-minister and then as president was at least tolerant vis-a-vis to some of them, if they were fighting against Assad. But as we saw with the fighters against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, who were supported by money and weapons by the US, this can turn against the supporters when the common enemy is beaten. Cooperation with brutal forces - and unfortunately even the US is continuing to do so - is dangerous. You never know when you will be the new enemy.


Power instead of ideology


Turkey with President Erdogan as the dominant figure became another country - for good or for bad. It cannot be easily defined and put in one of the traditional schemes. That is true for the domestic policy with its mixture of democratic, populistic and authoritarian elements. And that is even more true for its regional and foreign policy. Turkey is a full member of NATO but is often going its own way. Turkey dislikes the strong alliance of Russia with Armenia and it was critical of Russia's occupation of the Crimea with its Crimean Tatars. But it likes to have a strong energy cooperation with Russia. Erdogan wants Turkey to be a strong leader of the Sunni community. In this respect it has close relations with Saudi-Arabia, although it criticizes its attitude towards the Ottoman heritage in Saudi-Arabia. And on the other hand it wants to have a good relationship with the Shiite Iran. Power and influence are the key-words, not ideology. In this respect it seems that also the strong support for (Sunni) Islam is more seen as an instrument for supporting the domestic and international influence and not so much some out of a strictly a religious position. At least this is the hope of those inside and outside Turkey, who are interested in keeping the secular basis of the country alive.


This orientation can also be seen in the special form of modernization. The strong investments in road and rail infrastructure and many new office buildings with modern architecture are mixed with reference to the Ottoman period in some housing projects and the political discourse of President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu. It is a special mixture of approaches and attitudes which in any way is supporting the construction industry, which itself is supporting in one way or the other the AK Party and President Erdogan. And the clear support for the Sunni Islam is connected with some - timid - steps towards restoration of and services in Christian churches. Also concerning the Armenians, the strong reaction against foreign countries who speak of a Genocide is done parallel to some open discussions of the tragic events during WW I and apologies to the Armenian victims. Also the founder of the republic Attaturk is still seen as the most prominent Turk, but his importance is reduced on the one side and on the other side President Erdogan sees himself as successor and heir of the Attaturk revolution.


We are used from the past, that ideological splits and fights determine national and international politics. But ideology is not only pushed back on the national but also on the international level. From China to India, from Russia to Turkey and Iran ideology and "values" are used as instruments and are overshadowed by power politics. Neither Communism nor the ideology of non-alliance play an international defining role. Maybe it is only the European Union and the United States who still cling - in principle - to (neo-liberal) ideology and a canon of human rights principles as defined by the UN Human Rights Declaration or the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Not that in other countries there is a general disrespect for human rights. But they are often very selectively implemented and adapted to the needs and interpretation of forces in power. And criticism of human rights violations are often countered by reference to human rights violation in the field of minority rights and immigrants and by military aggression from the side of the "West"! At the end power is never absent in political life, but the balance between power and values/ideology is different.


Turkey is an example of countries where we have serious concerns about their domestic democratic development and the authoritarian structure of their leadership. But it is a country which we need as strategic partner especially for our influence in our neighborhood. The authoritarian role of the leadership is not uncontested and does not prevent a lively debate inside the country. But as long as the leadership can deliver economic success for the middle class, the majority of people will support it, especially in the elections. The critical position towards some developments and elements of Turkish politics today should not prevent us from having a strong alliance with Turkey where we agree or where an agreement can be reached. A double track approach of criticism and alliance is not an expression of double moral but of orientation to our interest of stability and peace in a fragile region with dangerous influence on developments in Europe.


Turkey's potential in the Middle East


And so we could and should appeal to Turkey to think about a new power structure in the Middle East which could bring stability and peace at least in the long run. The three dominant middle powers in the region are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. Whereas Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting for dominance and are leading proxy-wars, Turkey as a Sunni country and good neighbor to Iran could play a balancing role. Of course there are many small conflicts inside the different countries of the region and there is the "old" Palestinian/Israel conflict. But not everything can be solved at the same time. And as Israel once had very good ties and relations with Iran now it stands rather on the side of the Saudis. Again Turkey with its special regional situation could play a special role of trying to establish a new peace order. And it can be happy it did not intervene militarily in Syria, which would have deprived it of this possibility. Also thanks to the strong resistance from the side of Turkish military leadership a military intervention did not take place - so far.


Turkey will never be the leader of the Muslim states or be the role model for Muslim countries. That may be bad in some respect and in some respect may be good. However one sees it, things go differently than expected or desired by Erdogan in times of the very limited and short Arab spring. But Turkey could play an important role by bringing divisive and contradictory forces together and convince them to agree first on a modus vivendi, which could be later transformed into a peace and cooperation order.


Any ones sided support of or reliance on one or the other power in the region will not bring positive results. And changing from one ally or enemy to another, as Israel did in changing from Iran to Saudi-Arabia, will not help either. The Obama administration developed the right strategy trying to change from the strange alliance especially of the Bush administration to a more balanced approach - if the Congress in support of Israel's prime minister Netanyahu does not block that strategy. Anyway such a strategy is more justified than the one-sided orientation of France towards Saudi-Arabia and Qatar (with its strong investment in France!).


Again it is not about which regime is more or less implementing or violating the human rights standard of the EU. Here the choice would be very difficult. Europe should be concerned about the stability in the region and a common push back policy concerning terrorism. And we have a big interest in stopping financing fundamentalist and terrorist groups in our neighborhood and even farther away. If this financing is coming from Iran or from Saudi-Arabia and Qatar, which for the moment seems to be predominantly the case is not relevant. We need to stop that strange "competition" and Turkey could be of great help in this respect. To concentrate on economic investments and enhancing trade - the main Turkish strategy - is a much better concept than financing radical groups.


European Union as an example?


The European Union is not only an entity sui generis, it is also not an outright example for other regions. But in its core, the European unification process could give some hints and advice, what is possible. It is possible after centuries of war to overcome the basic division and animosities. Not, that all prejudices disappear overnight. Not, that there do not exist any specific national interest anymore. But the negotiation table substituted the battle fields. These negotiations take very often a long time and result in unsatisfying compromises. But these are always better than wars.  


But wars is what we find today in the Middle Eastern region. The wars between Sunnis and Shiites, respective "their" states, between terrorists and governments including foreign forces. And war between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no clear cut and border between the people adhering to the two main streams of Muslim religion. There is - no longer - a clear border between Israeli and Palestinians, especially after the many Jewish settlements, and many Palestinians live in Jordan and Lebanon. Many Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and many of them will stay there. The Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. So we have a mixture of people living across the borders, which are very artificial.


Of course it is not about the creation of one big multicultural and multi-religious state. This was and is not the idea of the European Union. But to overcome the wars and the killings and to improve living conditions by using common resources like water and by building common cross-border infrastructures a new regional cooperation should be constituted. To develop such ideas and present it to the neighbors, that could be a very valuable task for Turkish politicians. Maybe the colonial past in the region is not always helpful for Turkey to play a decisive role in restructuring the region. But it would be better received than to present Turkey and President Erdogan as the leader of the Muslim citizens of the region, if not globally. To introduce Turkey into the new political order, which is absolutely necessary to stop wars and terrorism, Turkey must not present itself as leader but rather as mediator and supporter.


Ljubljana, May 29, 2015                                                                                     

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