Dear Europe: Don’t drop Turkey

European leaders should think twice before severing ties with Turkey.

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On a trip to Germany this month, the deputy head of the Turkish parliament and a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had her purse and passport stolen from a hotel lobby. After filing a complaint with the police, she was taken to the police station at the airport, where she waited alongside illegal immigrants and suspects and faced what she described as “humiliating” behavior at the hands of German police before being allowed to board a plane to Turkey. The Turkish politician was furious, but not nearly as much as the Turkish president, who threatened “retaliation.” The German ambassador was subsequently summoned to the foreign ministry in Ankara, and Turkey briefly detained four German diplomats on their way home.

This just happened to be the “scandal of the week” in Turkey’s volatile relationship with Europe — but it also summed up all key aspects of this difficult partnership: the humiliation Turks feel at each encounter with Europe, the rule-bound European behavior that doesn’t understand Turkey’s cultural norms, the wait, the resentment, the fury and finally settling for an uncomfortable modus vivendi.

A decade ago, Turkey was a promising candidate to join the European Union and undertook major reforms to elevate its democracy to European standards. In the post-9/11 atmosphere, the decision to start membership talks with Turkey was a momentous strategic move for the West — integrating a large Muslim country into a club based on democracy and Western values. Europeans call the sum of these values “Copenhagen criteria,” and Turkey started negotiations for “full membership” in 2005 after Europeans ruled thatit had “sufficiently fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria.”

But along the way, Europeans had a change of heart, Turks stalled, and public resentment grew on both sides. Fast-forward to today, and the relationship is looking more like a messy divorce than an alliance.

This week, European leaders are meeting to discuss the fate of their union, the arrival of Donald Trump and the future of relations with Turkey. The Dec. 15 summit is coming on the heels of a vote from the European Parliament to “freeze” the already moribund membership talks with Turkey based on its human rights record. A decade ago, the European Parliament was an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey; today it’s the main advocate for shunning it.

While it is true that Erdogan’s Turkey is a far cry from the reformist Muslim democracy it was a decade ago — undoubtedly more repressive, authoritarian and Islamic in character — European leaders should think twice before severing ties with Turkey.

There are ample reasons for this. First, Turkey’s domestic evolution was always meant to be a long-term project. Even though the setbacks — which the Europeans politely refer to as “democratic backsliding” — are obvious, there is also a chicken-or-egg component to Turkey’s downturn, and Europe deserves at least part of the blame. Even before Ankara turned authoritarian, Europeans had already pretty much shut the door on Turkey — no new accession chapters opened since 2010, and leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy had already signaled they would not allow Turkey’s membership. What we will never know is this: Would Erdogan have become so wayward if there was a real possibility of entering the Euro club?

[Turkey was once a free society. Now the country is destroying itself.]

Another strong argument to keep Turkey’s membership bid alive is Turkey itself — the country as opposed to the leader. Hop on a subway or walk the streets of Istanbul and you will see thousands of young men and women going to work and school — looking or acting no different than their European counterparts. It is a very polarized society, and in that mix, Turkey’s pro-Western and secular constituency is not a tiny minority but roughly half of Turkey. That half should not be ignored. Even though Erdogan has emerged as a bête noire for European public opinion, European leaders could explain to their electorate that Turkey is not just about Erdogan.

And then there is the problem of the big bad wolves out there. No one knows the future shape of the European Union after Brexit, after the string of European elections in 2017 favoring populist anti-E.U. parties or the possible damage that could be inflicted on the continent at the hands of a Euro-skeptic Trump administration. With his tightening grip on Syria, promise of lucrative energy deals and a glittering membership card to the Authoritarian International, Vladimir Putin is already out there trying to lure Erdogan into his own universe. Such a realignment between Turkey and Russia would be a huge loss for the West. Turkey’s capricious leader is difficult and confused, but Europe should not push him into Russia’s arms.

It is tempting for European countries to yell back at Erdogan, tear up Turkey’s contract and reduce its decades-long E.U. bid to a simple cash-for-refugees deal — asking Turkey to keep Syrian refugees in return for cash payments from Brussels. But leaders must resist that. Between “full membership” and severing ties, there is a whole range of associations that could salvage the relationship — such as upgrading Turkey’s existing free-trade agreement with the E.U. or, for a change, building direct bridges with Turkish society.

What Europe really needs is a long-term strategic vision, in the words of Carl Bildt, “strategic patience” in relations with Turkey. Ten years from now, Turkey could look a lot more appealing to Europe than it does today. Europeans have not lived up to their end of the bargain to help Turkey’s domestic evolution; they cannot abandon it now. Having some type of a European peg would only help the country return to democracy.

And in the end, that seems like the only good option.

This op-ed was first published in the Washington Post on 12 December 2016.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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