Picture showing the President of Turkey against backdrop of Turkey and EU flags

GIS Dossier: Turkey and Europe

  • The Turkish government gradually has emphasized the nation’s Islamic tradition and its role as a reginal power
  • Ankara continues to pursue membership in the European Union, but neither side of the negotiations sees this goal as attainable
  • Turkey’s democratic regression does not change the fact that security and economic cooperation remains in vital interest of both Turkey and Europe

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey is devoted to Europe’s relations with Turkey, a historical Mediterranean power of continued importance to the West and a country that is still groping for its identity, and geopolitical place, in the 21st-century world.

Geography has awarded Turkey a privileged geostrategic and economic position, but also exposes that country to numerous geopolitical challenges. “Some of them pose grave risks to its security and are stress-testing its foreign policy,” observed Prince Michael of Liechtenstein, the founder of GIS, in his comprehensive February 2018 essay.

In their interactions with Ankara, the Prince wrote, European leaders need to pay more attention to the dangers, often very grave, faced by Turkey. “A better understanding of Turkey’s needs and legitimate concerns is essential,” the author emphasized. Continuing to ignore Turkish interests will have disastrous consequences for Europe’s security, trade and economy. He concluded:

Europe needs Turkey as a friend, and this is the role Ankara wants to play. In return, though, it requests respect.

The geopolitical importance of Turkey was clear to GIS experts from the service’s earliest days.

The Republic of Turkey in the 20th century

Modern-day Turkey was founded in 1923 on the ruins of the vast Ottoman Empire, of which it had been the center. Its politics and society were revolutionized according to the ideas of Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk. The country emerged as a secular nation-state with its governance system and institutions patterned on those in the democratic West. Its doctrine called for avoiding ethnic and religious tensions and focusing on Turkey’s integrity and international position. The army was the supreme guarantor of the Kemalist system and repeatedly intervened in politics.

In the bipolar world of the Cold War (1947-1989), Turkey was a formidable partner of the West in its confrontation with the Soviet Union. Today, it fields the second-largest army in NATO (after the U.S.), and maintains difficult accession talks with the EU while struggling to resume its role as a regional power in the tumultuous Middle East.

The strategic implications of Turkey’s role in Europe were highlighted by GIS Expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich as early as July 2011. “A continued European distancing from Turkey, especially by using secondary issues like Cyprus, will send the wrong signals to Turkey and the Arab world,” he warned. Europe stood to miss Turkey’s valuable potential as “a bridge to European-Arab relations.”

New direction

On Dec. 1 of the same year, Dr. Udo Steinbach pointed to an important evolution in Turkey’s foreign policy. The architects of that change were then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his associates.

The new approach was to emphasize the nation’s centuries-long Islamic tradition

The traditional Turkish policy was to strike out on an independent path of development based on the principles of Turkish nationalism and secularism, the expert wrote, and to seek security through entering regional and international treaties and alliances, such as NATO. The new approach was to emphasize the nation’s centuries-long Islamic tradition and direct engagement with neighboring countries. At the same time, the Turkish government remained determined to pursue membership in the European Union.

Democratic beginnings

Turkey experienced far-reaching changes in the first decade of the millennium, wrote Dr. Steinbach in a follow-up report on Dec. 6, 2011. The driving force was the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Erdogan, who took office in March 2003.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power

  • He was born in Istanbul 1954; his father was a coast guard officer in the Black Sea town of Rize; the family returned to Istanbul in 1967
  • According to biographers, he sold lemonade and bread rolls to help pay for his religious education; as a management student at the Marmara University he met Necmettin Erbakan, later Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister
  • He began a political career in the Islamist Welfare Party; served as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014, and president since 2014
  • In 1999, he spent four months in jail after being convicted of inciting religious hatred by reciting a poem in public
  • Led the Justice and Development Party (AKP, founded in 2001) to victories in the 2002, 2007 and 2011 general elections
  • Following the failed military coup attempt in July 2016, he purged followers of exiled Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen from positions in the country’s administration, army, courts, schools, academia and media
  • In April 2017, he narrowly won a referendum that expanded his presidential powers, which may keep him in office until 2029

The party aimed to prepare Turkey for negotiations to join the EU, and accession talks began in October 2005, Dr. Steinbach wrote. Gender equality was enshrined in penal and civil law. The death penalty was abolished. And the party’s approach to the Kurdish question was revolutionary.

Rigorous Turkish nationalism since the founding of the republic denied that any Kurdish people lived in Turkey. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fought an armed struggle from 1984 to gain recognition of their national status. “This was, at times, almost a civil war against the suppression of Kurdishness. Kurdish political parties were repeatedly outlawed,” the expert wrote.

The Erdogan government toyed with a different approach. It liberalized the use of the Kurdish language in public, with the prime minister personally inaugurating a Kurdish-speaking channel on Turkish television in 2009. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was allowed to enter the parliament. By that time, the government had managed to weaken the military, the upholder of traditional Kemalism and the state’s secular character.

Turkish society experienced liberalization and pluralism under the AKP and broad sections of society were willing to vote for the party. The other side of the coin, though, were increasing fears among many Turks that the government’s agenda was to further Islamize Turkey and dismantle its democratic institutions. A September 2010 referendum on a series of constitutional changes was in fact a vote on Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist project, the expert explained. The prime minister won the referendum with 57.9 percent support.

By 2011, his government no longer appeared concerned to find a peaceful solution to Kurdish aspirations. Soon, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resumed its bloody, armed struggle against the Turkish military.

Enter Syria

By the start of 2013, the civil war in Syria was in full swing, which presented Turkey with nasty challenges, reported Dr. Steinbach. Ankara faced a foreign policy predicament as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime disintegrated. “It is becoming clear to Turkey that another Kurdish entity is establishing itself on its southern border at a time when Ankara is nowhere near resolving its own Kurdish unrest,” the expert observed.

A map that shows geographical distribution of Kurdish-speaking people in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria
As opposed to the Kurds in the autonomous regions in northern Iraq, the Kurds in Syria are suspected by Ankara of assisting terrorist attacks in Turkey (source: macpixxel for GIS)

The Kurdish issue has been the main challenge to Turkey’s stability for almost three decades. It has put a strain on the country’s foreign policy and, in particular, on its relations with the EU, which it aspired to join, Dr. Steinbach wrote in August 2013.

It is in the interest of the Kurds not to antagonize Ankara

Negotiations between Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, and representatives of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) began in the latter part of 2012, indicating that a solution to the Kurdish issue might be possible. Mr. Ocalan’s announcement of the withdrawal of the PKK’s fighters to neighboring Iraq raised hopes for a historic settlement. The first fighters left in May 2013.

But the window of opportunity soon closed. In early 2014, with Turkey’s first direct presidential elections looming, Prime Minister Erdogan was preparing to run on a strict nationalistic platform. A “soft” approach to the Kurdish issue was no longer compatible with his political goals.

The Kurds have many friends in the West, and understandably so, wrote Prince Michael in another of his comments. He cautioned, though:

There is evident hesitation in the public sphere to criticize Kurdish extremism against Turkey. People are afraid that this could be understood as excusing the current policies of President Erdogan. It is in the interest of the Kurds not to continue antagonizing Ankara. Their only realistic path to living in peace and self-determination leads through good relations with Turkey.

Gezi Park protests

By early 2014, after more than a decade of relative stability, Turkey was rocked by public protests and corruption scandals in the run-up to its first-ever presidential election, reported GIS Expert Pieter-Vincez van der Byl.

Dissatisfaction with Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly overbearing rule started spilling over into the streets of Istanbul in May 2013, when citizens staged rallies to protest the harsh treatment of students and environmentalists trying to stop the demolition of an iconic inner-city park. The protests involved mostly the Istanbul intellectuals. Then, in December 2013, dozens of business people and officials close to the prime minister were arrested on corruption charges. The government’s head responded frantically, by removing or reassigning prosecutors, restricting the media and branding the charges as politically motivated.

In August 2014, Mr. Erdogan was elected the 12th President of the Republic of Turkey by popular vote. Prior to 2007, the president had been chosen by parliament for a single seven-year term. This was changed via constitutional amendments pushed through by the ruling AKP. Mr. Erdogan won a five-year presidential term with the potential to be reelected for a second term.

By that time, his ambition was to transform the Turkish republic by 2023 – the centenary of the Turkish republic’s founding – into a regional power and the world’s 10th strongest economy, Dr. Steinbach wrote in February 2015.

This ambition lessened the appeal – for both sides – of Turkey joining the EU. In December 2014, President Erdogan “stated in no uncertain terms that he did not care whether the EU would accept Turkey as a member,” Dr. Steinbach pointed out in another GIS report. Instead, the Turkish leader said, Europe “should mind its own business.” Those blistering words came in response to the EU’s criticism of his repressive policies at home.

The ‘New Turkey’

Turkey had first applied to join the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, back in 1987. Over the years, its bid stirred up controversy within the bloc over Turkey’s commitment to democracy and human rights, along with its relationship with Cyprus.

Both sides understand that they have to take measured steps forward

“The EU plays only a marginal role in Mr. Erdogan’s vision of the ‘New Turkey’. It is only one of the points of reference for Ankara’s foreign policy,” Dr. Steinbach concluded.

Europe’s relations with Turkey have cooled, partly due to the EU’s arrogant behavior during the accession negotiations, but also as a result of the erratic policies pursued by the Turkish president in recent years, wrote Prince Michael in an October 2015 comment. That was unfortunate for Europe.

“Turkey is now providing shelter to some 2 million Syrian refugees, many of whom would like to continue their journey westwards,” the Prince pointed out. “It should be remembered that Turkey is also a transit country for migrants to the EU from other hot spots. The EU needs Turkish help to prevent uncontrolled numbers of migrants and refugees from reaching its borders.”

After inconclusive June 2015 elections, which left the AKP well short of a majority, the ruling party scored a decisive win in the November 2015 snap elections, putting President Erdogan again firmly in charge, reported GIS Expert Eka Tkeshelashvili. She wrote:

The election results actually give grounds for cautious optimism. Set against the shambles of the Middle East, an end to the political impasse in Turkey is in itself good news. A dysfunctional Turkish government, mired in political infighting, would be a worst-case scenario for the country’s NATO allies and regional partners in both the Middle East and the Black Sea area.

‘Where is Turkey headed?’

By March 2016, the EU-Turkey relations had improved. The bloc granted Ankara 3 billion euros to improve conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkish camps, relaxed visa requirements and revived Turkey’s EU membership talks. “Both sides understand that they have to manage expectations and take measured steps forward,” Ms. Tkeshelashvili wrote.

Some six months later, however, Dr. Udo Steinbach described the situation this way:

As Turkey’s unstable internal politics have lurched toward repression, its foreign policy appears to have lost direction. The escalating war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has pushed resolution of the Kurdish question into the distant future, while terrorist strikes and a conflict with Russia have dragged Ankara deeper into the Syrian quagmire. Meanwhile, the suppression of voices critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised doubts about just how far the rule of law applies.

Where is Turkey headed? asked Dr. Steinbach rhetorically. “This question is being asked in Brussels, Berlin and Washington. Since 2011, Turkish politics have been unpredictable,” he wrote.

The coup and repression

The attempted coup staged by Turkey’s military on July 15, 2016, arrived as yet another nasty surprise for “a Europe in desperate need of stability,” as GIS Expert Stefan Hedlund put it. An anonymous GIS expert gave this description of the situation:

The failed coup in Turkey this July and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction to it have drastically changed the country’s geopolitical outlook. … President Erdogan will continue his opportunistic foreign policy, pulling Turkey closer to Russia and further straining relations with the United States. Stresses on domestic stability are set to grow, while Turkey’s ties with NATO will weaken.

Shortly after the coup attempt, Prof. Hedlund observed that the March 2016 deal on returning migrants (cobbled together by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk) still had a potential for turning the troubled relationship around, as it “entailed not only money but also concessions that had been coveted by Ankara, including visa-free travel and a new impetus for membership negotiations.” If the post-coup repression campaign continued, however, many European lawmakers and governments may find it “unpalatable to continue to cooperate,” the expert warned.

Just dithering

After the coup and purges that followed, Turkey is once again considered the “sick man of Europe,” judged GIS Expert Costas Iordanidis in his July 2017 commentary. “Mr. Erdogan … certainly bears most of the blame for this situation,” he wrote, but “Turkey is a complex country, always struggling to balance East and West.” Reassessment of Western policy was imperative.

There is a desire in Brussels to retain a modicum of influence in Turkey

“The reality – unpleasant as it may be – is that President Erdogan is here to stay. The West should find a way to coexist with him and build a positive relationship with his country, based not on high-minded principles but on realpolitik,” Mr. Iordanidis concluded.

On April 16, 2017, Turkish voters voted narrowly to strengthen the president’s powers. Europe will have to accept this outcome, wrote Prince Michael:

It would be very bad politics for Europe to try to punish Turkey for what transpired last weekend. After all, Europe started this chain of events. It was the EU’s insistence on ending the Turkish army’s role as protector of the Kemalist system that finally made its overthrow possible. The unfair treatment that Turkey has received from the EU during the last 15 years has strongly contributed to Mr. Erdogan’s policy shift.

GIS Expert Dr. Michael Leigh looked at the issue from Brussels’ perspective.

The EU was “dithering” over its Turkey policy, he wrote. “Today, Turkey cannot be considered eligible for EU membership. Nevertheless, most member states still prefer maintaining Turkey’s accession process,” because the EU and Turkey are major partners in trade and investment, because Europe needs Ankara to help manage conflict in Iraq and Syria, and because there is a desire in Brussels to retain a modicum of influence in Turkey.

Neither the EU nor Turkey is ready to declare that the negotiations have failed, observed Mr. Leigh. The president of Turkey "uses the process to vindicate the claim that his AKP is a conservative, business-oriented party, akin to Christian Democratic parties in Europe,” he wrote. “The EU connection might also help him to keep more extreme factions in the AKP in check…. By seeming to reaffirm Turkey’s European goal, President Erdogan aims to shift responsibility for any decision to end the accession process from Turkey to the EU,” Mr. Leigh pointed out.

Pragmatism needed

For European leaders, too, the right moment to abandon negotiations never seems to come, the expert wrote, as Turkey’s cooperation is constantly needed in areas such as security and migration.

A map that shows Turkey’s neighbors identified as rivals and historic partners
Aside from security issues related to the war in Syria, Turkey faces a number of daunting geopolitical challenges that the EU and its member countries should bear in mind when dealing with Ankara (source: macpixxel for GIS)

In his February 2018 comment on Turkey (already quoted in this Dossier), Prince Michael identified one of the reasons for worsening relations: Turkey’s interests were widely ignored by Europe and the U.S following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

In 2005, the EU “half-heartedly started accession talks with Turkey, with the EU side constantly putting the bar for acceptance higher,” the Prince wrote. It was always highly conditional – an “accession if” – instead of a straightforward offer to include Turkey in “the four freedoms” that are the pillars of the common market, without the political union that some EU member states had opposed from the start. As Prince Michael observed:

This rigged process has poisoned the European-Turkey relationship and hurt the pride of the Turkish people. Moreover, the U.S. and many European countries continue to interfere in Turkish affairs, criticizing Ankara – while at the same time requesting its support for their policies in the Middle East. This ignores the elementary fact that Turkey’s own long-term interests, as a direct neighbor of Middle Eastern states and their historic trading and political partner, may run counter many short-term, fast-shifting European and U.S. objectives.

Small wonder that Ankara’s perception these days is that the West demands support without giving anything back. “There is a feeling of betrayal in Turkey. In the inconsistent policies of the West … the only consistent element appears to be its disregard for Turkey’s vital interests,” the founder of GIS concluded. For the good of Europe and the U.S., this simply must change.

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