What Turkey thinks of Europe

How to re-energise Turkey-EU relations in an era of global risk and uncertainty

A curious trend has presented itself once again in Turkey’s fluctuating relations with the West. Despite the enduring skepticism, Turkey’s favorable public opinion of the West, including the EU and NATO, grows, especially in times of security risks and economic uncertainties. This attraction to the West is reflected in Turkish appreciation for the EU anchor and NATO membership.[1] Internally, Turkey’s looming phase of uncertainty has only widened and deepened domestic political trenches. While the governing Justice and Development Party (the AKP) prioritises security-oriented politics, the opposition – mainly consisting of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – vehemently calls for a more democratic politics, that is human rights oriented and respects the rule of law.

At the beginning of 2016, Turkey finds itself at the intersection of the two fundamental crises that haunt both the Middle East and the West. On the one hand, there are the crises facing Europe: the threat from Islamic State (ISIS), the power vacuum caused by failed states in the Middle East, and the influx of refugees arriving from the region. On the other hand there are the crises facing the Middle East: the geopolitical power struggle in the region, the continued fight against ISIS, and failed states, which are the real progenitors of the expanded crisis that plagues the rest of the West. Turkey finds itself in an uneasy position, between Europe and the Middle East, and straddling these multiple crises. As such, it faces the largest range of issues, from being a target of ISIS attacks, to hosting some 2.2 million Syrian refugees.

Domestic Scenarios

The AKP’s landslide victory in November 2015, and a number of the policy debates which took place in the immediate aftermath of the party’s reelection, suggested that Turkey will continue to practice domestic and foreign policies that are fundamentally intertwined. There are four domestic issues that will dominate future debate in Turkey: 1) The AKP’s call for a new Turkish constitution; 2) the role of the dominant AKP versus the weak opposition; 3) the Kurdish peace process; 4) economic governance and the independence of key state institutions. Turkey’s choices in these matters will greatly affect several regional developments that may have global repercussions: These are: 1) the refugee crisis; 2) ISIS; 3) problems with the state; 4) the regional power struggle; 5) the lack of regional leadership; 6) the lack of inclusive institutions and civil society; 7) the rise of sectarianism.  

Building a new constitution

The debate over the possibility of a new Turkish constitution and “presidentialism” will dominate domestic politics in 2016. A draft revised constitution is expected to be written in the first half of this year, but there are already 60 items that political parties have agreed upon from the first redrafting process in 2011-2012. The archive of agreed amendments that was produced during this period, and which is available on the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s online database, gives also an important push to this process. Turkey’s thawing relations with the EU and the possibility of opening new chapters in the accession process may also influence the new constitution making process.

The AKP government will likely spend some of 2016 preparing the foundations of the presidential system. The government plans to hold town hall meetings, focus groups and conferences, to garner support for presidentialism among the Turkish electorate (indicators suggest that support is still low). By the end of 2016, we will know whether Turkey will adopt a presidential system, and what that system might look like.

A dominant party versus a weak opposition

The AKP was able to consolidate its dominant position in the November 1 elections, while the opposition demonstrated its weakness. With 49.5 percent of the vote and 317 seats in the 550 seat parliament, the AKP not only received a mandate to govern Turkey as a “strong majority government”, but it has also reinforced its “dominant party” position in Turkish politics. The party is already expected to win the 2019 election and in much the same way. If the opposition parties remain weak, the AKP will be able to cement Turkish domestic discourse under its “New Turkey” concept, which promotes rapid urbanisation and the development of a new entrepreneurial class, a new civil society rooted in Anatolia, a new media, opinion leaders and public intellectuals. The initiative will also promote a more prominent and visible role for religious expression in the public domain, as well as a strong form of identity politics along ethnic, religious, and gender lines.

The election results helped President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP regain the confidence needed to rekindle debate on the new constitution, and push for a presidential model. The process of redrafting the constitution is helped along by the return of a strong form of politics. It is already apparent that the opposition parties will be taken hostage by their own internal politics, leaving little room for serious debate on opposing the AKP’s plans.

The Kurdish peace process

The Kurdish question in general, and the future of peace negotiations in particular, remain key challenges for the new AKP government. Certainly, the decision of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to escalate the violence after the June 7 elections was a profound mistake. Whether the PKK has drawn any lessons from its mistakes will also determine the effectiveness and position of the pro-Kurdish HDP in the new parliament.

Since the November 1 elections, attacks in southeastern provinces carried out by PKK insurgents have continued to rage on. PKK leaders have declared that they have no intention of ceasing attacks while the status quo in Turkey’s neighboring region remains the same and ISIS continues to wage war. In the midst of the PKK’s statements and actions, the Turkish government has put public safety and security before all other priorities and concerns. It refuses to sit down at the negotiating table and engage in peace talks before safety and security is restored in the region. All of this suggests that 2016 will be a year of continued and likely unresolved tensions between the two sides.

The Kurdish HDP remains the pivotal opposition actor on questions of the peace process. Despite its poor performance, the HDP emerged from the November elections as a viable member of the opposition, holding the third largest number of seats in parliament. The government must consider that HDP is a key actor in Kurdish peace process. The AKP should therefore ensure that the HDP and its co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, are not alienated or isolated by the political process; on the contrary, their confidence must be won. Fostering strong relations with the HDP might provide the only hope for peace in 2016.

Economic Challenges and institutional reform

2016 will also be a critical year in terms of Turkey’s prospects to break free from the middle income trap. According to the World Bank, Turkey is in the upper bracket of “middle income”, with nearly $11,000 GDP per capita. However, it has been stuck in this grouping for some time and has struggled to leap over into a higher income category for the past two decades. This year Turkey faces the challenge of making its economic growth more inclusive, more innovative and its key regulatory and monetary institutions, such as the Central Bank, more independent.

Regional scenarios with global repercussions

It will be important for Turkey to maintain its post-election stability, growth, and security if it wants to come up with an effective response to some of its regional challenges, which more often than not, also have global repercussions. Recently, such challenges have proliferated: The refugee crisis, the threat posed by ISIS, failed states, regional power games, the absence of regional leadership, rising sectarianism, and lack of institutional capacity. Turkey’s ability to effectively tackle these problems is linked closely to its domestic stability, economic growth, and its status as an EU candidate and a transatlantic partner. Effective coupling of these characteristics with Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy and soft power amplifies Turkey’s transformative power in the region.

The refugee crisis

Over the course of the past five years, Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on Syrian protestors in favour of a democratic regime has turned into an incredibly bloody civil war with knock on effects in the region. According to UNHCR estimates, 4.5 million people have left Syria to escape the atrocities caused by the Assad regime, as well as the infighting between regime forces and armed opposition groups, and finally, the ISIS menace. Turkey hosts the largest number of these refugees outside Syria – approximately 2.2 million, according to estimates, with an additional 1 million expected to arrive in the next year. While nearly 300,000 refugees are registered in camps, more than 1.7 million are migrating within Turkey, seeking either better economic conditions, job opportunities, or “safe” passage to Europe. Turkey has stretched its institutional capacities to breaking point in order to provide education, health, and housing services for the Syrian refugees. For example, Turkish Red Crescent officials haveconfirmed that more than 450,000 Syrian students are enrolled in elementary and higher education schools for the 2015-2016 school year. As Turkey’s economic forecasts signal caution, a growing cloud of concern threatens the sustainability of Turkey’s aid to Syrian refugees.

In order to support Turkey’s efforts to assist in the hosting of refugees, the EU put together an action plan to establish cooperation areas, which includes provisions for cost-sharing, information sharing, and strengthening Turkey’s capacity to fight people-smuggling and ensure the protection of its borders. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Ankara—shortly after the suicide attack by ISIS supporters that claimed 100 lives at a peace rally—has provided the much needed political clout for the action plan to go ahead.


The self-proclaimed “Islamic State” militant group (ISIS) continues to extend and consolidate its influence in the region. ISIS’s physical and psychological warfare now turns it into a non-state actor that wields an effective media campaign and widespread control over oil fields – a major revenue source. As such, ISIS not only operates as a terrorist organisation, but as a state-building movement, seeking to control territory mainly in Iraq and Syria. Although Russia has entered the anti-ISIS coalition, its recent indiscriminate bombing of the anti-Assad coalition casts doubt over its real intentions. Turkey’s intention to grant American jets access to its Incirlik air base have also been questioned. Although these two developments may be interpreted as short-term measures to incapacitate ISIS, their long-term impacts in the fight against ISIS remain dubious.

Failed states and regional power games

The problem of “failed states” in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Somalia constitutes a critical challenge to stability in the region that both the international community and Turkey need to address collectively and on a state-by-state basis.

2016 will see an escalating proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The events that almost brought Riyadh and Tehran to the brink of war have increased in the aftermath of the nuclear deal between the P5+1 actors and Iran. The US-led nuclear deal with Tehran was certainly beneficial. However, the agreement and the efforts made with Iran did not take into account the delicate balance of power in the region. Any initiative to foster regional stability requires a multilateral effort from key regional actors to create a common ground. Furthermore, the Saudi air raid that resulted in the destruction of the Iranian embassy in Yemen illustrates that the conflict in Yemen stands to further complicate the proxy wars fought Turkey’s own region.

Failed states in the region and the resilience of ISIS has also increased Russia’s regional ambitions. Russia has rapidly increased and consolidated its military presence and its increased operations in the region led to an unfortunate incident that not only resulted in the downing of a Russian jet fighter by the Turkish Air Force, but also severed diplomatic relations between two important trade partners. Any further build-up of Russian military operations in Syria may turn the country into another Afghanistan for Moscow.

In the same vein, the reluctance of the United States and EU to get involved in Syria, Yemen and other entrenched conflicts in the region has caused a leadership crisis. Without a commitment from hegemonic actors, key regional actors like Turkey are equally deterred from shouldering the entire burden of these conflicts. Russia’s entry to the Syrian theatre of war has sent all actors back to the drawing board to deliberate new strategies.

In the meantime, it seems that these problems will not go away any time soon. The requisites for a stable Middle East and Levant are still missing. In all of these fragile and broken states, civil society remains weak and powerless. A strong concept of citizenship is not shared among all identity groups. The rentier state mentality, and corruption as a derivative of it, is still entrenched. Furthermore, poverty and economic instability still linger, while the resurgence of sectarianism and clientelism exacerbates all of these problems.

The road ahead for Turkey

The recent Turkey-EU summit, which was held in Brussels in late November, presented Turkey with another window of opportunity. The summit not only provided Turkey with substantive EU support in order to accommodate refugees, but provided it with a clear basis from which to resuscitate its EU accession process. When considered in light of potentially incendiary skirmishes with Russia and escalating security threats in the region, Turkey’s EU and NATO anchors are potent enablers for Turkey to focus on good governance, to facilitate stability and normalcy, and to upgrade its democracy. These factors are of utmost importance if Turkey is to prevent human tragedy not only within its borders, but also in its immediate neighborhood.

Turkey’s commitments to alleviate the refugee crisis play a special role in this context. Turkey’s track record of providing safe asylum to the victims of the Syrian war goes all the way back to the beginning of the Assad regime’s atrocities. Turkey gained considerable experience in mitigating the plight of refugees before the issue appeared on EU radar for the first time last year. Turkey has run state-of-the-art refugee camps, fully equipped with health centres, schools, and other key facilities, in Hatay and Kilis provinces. Turkey’s experience therefore offers important know-how and expertise for Europe in the area of first-response. The recent commitment of €3 billion is also instrumental in shaping Turkey’s longer-term and sustainable policies such as provision of work permits, education and health care services.

The concrete steps taken with regard to the refugee issue will bear positive externalities which might re-energise Turkish-EU accession negotiations. Amid the serious challenges Turkey faces today and an impending internal reform period, opening the chapters on judicial and fundamental rights (chapter 23) as well as justice, freedoms, and security (chapter 24) would be of key significance. Progress made on these issues will not only arm Turkey with better ways of responding to external destabilising forces, but it will also boost Turkey’s own domestic legal and legislative reform process. In short, a Turkey with a just, inclusive, democratic constitutional foundation is not only a stronger candidate, but also a staunch partner that Europe cannot do without in addressing the problems accumulating at its gates.

Turkey faces multiple important policy decisions. For one, it may opt to strengthen strategic partnership with the EU, while focusing on upgrading democracy at home; to engage in more proactive foreign policy and soft power over a vast region, stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa to South East Asia, with a humanitarian and mediatory angle. Moreover, if the process of revitalisation in Turkey-EU relations goes hand-in-hand with the much needed revitalisation of the Kurdish peace process, then the capacity and ability of Turkey as a pivotal actor to contribute to regional security and stability is likely to increase. 

As noted at the beginning of this article, the Turkish people’s favorable opinion of the EU and Europe at large surges in a time when security risks and economic uncertainties are high. In these turbulent times, Turkey and the EU are growing ever closer, to tackle the unprecedented regional and global challenges facing hem. Let us remember that these two actors are stronger and more effective together than apart in handling and defending themselves against the challenges in their neighbourhoods.

Fuat Keyman is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabancı University

[i]The German Marshall Fund’s annual Transatlantic Trends Survey reports demonstrate an upward trend in Turkish public opinion for EU membership in the years corresponding to increased domestic and regional security challenges. For instance, in 2009, the year in which the ripple effects of the global financial crisis reached Turkey, favorable opinion of the EU rose to 48 percent, from 42 percent just a year ago. Similarly, with the deteriorating security situation in the region and its fallout on Turkey, EU favorability among Turkish public is reported as 48 percent, 44 percent, 45 percent, 53 percent respectively in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. http://trends.gmfus.org

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


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