How to reset Turkey-Europe Relations

European leaders ought to pay more attention to Turkey’s security concerns and stop allowing terrorists to use European countries to undermine freedom, democracy and peace in a key ally.

There is plenty of talk in Europe about Turkey among policymakers, experts and media personalities. Few, however, seem truly prepared to hear their Turkish counterparts out, to address their concerns and to develop a better understanding of how Turkey-EU relations can be developed on sound and fair principles.

Since 2005, Turkey has officially been a candidate country for full membership in the European Union. What began as an exciting and promising new chapter, however, has produced more frustration, mistrust and crises than many might have been expected twelve years ago. Europe’s internal problems, including enlargement fatigue, euroscepticism, and the rise of xenophobia and racism have landed the accession process in political deadlock, bureaucratic stalemate, and a general sense of despair and dysfunctionality. Turkey’s security challenges – including the fight against the PKK and, more recently, the Gulenist coup attempt and the lack of solidarity from European authorities – have also strained relations between Turkey and several European countries.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that Turkey-EU relations do need a reset, but the critical question is how and on what foundations this can be achieved without reverting back to the problems that led to where we are in the first place.

Observers looking at Turkey from afar tend to blame recent tensions between Ankara and Brussels on the country’s supposed drift from Western values, an alleged authoritarian turn and Turkey’s so-called ‘axis shift’. In order to support their claims, they invoke Ankara’s efforts to strengthen its military and economic cooperation with Russia and China, the fight against the PKK and the Gulenists who planned and executed last summer’s coup attempt, and tensions between Turkey and certain European governments. Sadly, such allegations not only strain Turkish-European relations but also place Europe’s vital interests at risk. Turkey-bashing may bring short-term populist gains but it does not guarantee peace, security or prosperity for anyone.

This problem goes beyond the border of Turkey and Europe: Turkey-EU relations have far-reaching repercussions for relations between Islamic and Western societies as a whole. And it will be impossible to overcome many of the world’s most pressing challenges without the Islamic and Western worlds finding a way to work for the common good of humanity. This calls for a new vision and requires bold political leadership. Plans for short-term political gains and policies of appeasement towards extremists, on the other hand, are bound to jeopardize everyone’s long-term interests and wellbeing.

The contemporary discussion on Turkish foreign policy is heavily informed by ideological bias and political inclinations as opposed to facts and reason. In certain European countries – including but not limited to Germany – hostility towards Turkey has become part and parcel of domestic politics because it plays well with certain voters. Unfortunately, what started out as a negligible problem a decade ago has become part of the mainstream. Needless to say, the anti-Erdoğan rantings in Europe not only strain our relationship with European governments but also paint a target on the backs of millions of Turkish nationals living within the borders of the European Union.

There is no shortage of politicians, experts and analysts suggesting that Turkey isn’t the same country it was a decade (or several decades) ago. They are right. The country’s population has nearly tripled since the 1960s and its GDP has grown by more than 80 times since 1963 – fivefold since President Erdoğan came to power. What European observers conveniently ignore, however, is that Turks don’t see the same Europe they saw in the early 2000s either. Once the bastion of democracy, freedom and multi-culturalism, Europe today is characterized by the rise of far-right extremism, populism, and hate crimes against immigrants, Muslims and others. The deteriorating security situation in Europe, coupled with efforts by certain European governments to shut the door on Turkey’s EU membership bid, have resulted in a steady decline in the Turkish people’s support for EU membership.

It is important to note that Turkey has repeatedly called for a new and more constructive approach in EU-Turkey relations, even as Europe’s populists targeted its culture, elected leaders and interests. Most recently, after the April 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he was prepared to let bygones be bygones. This was despite the fact that the German government, along with several other European nations, had meddled in Turkey’s internal affairs by lending support to the opponents of constitutional reform, including known members of the PKK and FETÖ/Gulenist terrorist organizations, and preventing pro-reform voices from being heard by Turkish citizens within their borders.

Sadly, though, the September 2017 federal elections in Germany proved yet again that spreading hatred against Turkey and President Erdogan would not stop the rise of far-right populism in Europe: More than one million voters who supported Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance in 2013 sided with the openly racist Alternative for Germany (AfD). In responding to this development, European leaders should remember that the policy of appeasement did not work a century ago and that we have no reason to believe that it will work now. Instead, European leaders must promote common sense in the face of animosity, solidarity in the face of aggression, and unity in the face of polarisation.

Turkey considers EU membership a strategic goal. However, we are not prepared to accept double standards and outright hostility. Turkey’s relationship with the European Union can be repaired provided that European leaders accept that the traditionally unequal relationship is no longer sustainable. They must be prepared to respect the Turkish people’s democratic decisions, treat Turkey’s elected leaders with due respect, and engage Turkey as an equal partner. This holds true for the Turkey-EU migration deal and the corresponding Schengen visa liberalisation, which should have been granted to Turkish citizens many years ago.

The problem of double standards runs deeper than many think. Western countries are entitled to take strict security measures to defend their homelands against terrorist networks. They pass laws, declare states of emergency, go after terrorists around the world, seek immunity for their soldiers and military operations, curb freedoms at home, freeze terrorist assets, and so on. These measures are justified and necessary for the peace and security of European citizens. They are accepted as part and parcel of public order and national security.

Yet when Turkey implements the same or similar policies to protect itself from terrorists it is accused of authoritarianism, of implementing a ‘crackdown’, and of drifting away from the West. The fact is that Turkey is the only NATO country that is fighting against three terrorist organisations – the PKK, the Islamic State and the Gulenist terror network – all at the same time. It is also a sad fact that Turkey, a key NATO ally with major contributions to the Alliance, receives very little help from its NATO allies in its three-front fight against terrorism. While the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe and the US, there is practically no serious help coming from Turkey’s NATO allies against the PKK attacks from Iraq and Syria. On the contrary, the PKK’s largest presence in the world today is in Europe, where it collects money, recruits terrorists, and runs propaganda activities against Turkey. Now add to this the Gulenists – the network of operatives that failed in the July 15 coup attempt – who work assiduously to run smear campaigns against Turkey in all major European cities.

One is then compelled to ask: Have EU countries taken Turkey’s legitimate security concerns seriously and offered help in a concrete and result-oriented manner? Can you imagine a situation where Turkey would allow such terror networks to operate out of its territories against European countries? What would be their response? Would they accept it in the name of freedom of expression or civil liberties? Some western allies seem to care about terrorism only when it hits them. But this is a self-defeating approach in an age of global terrorism, which requires global partnership and cooperation. European leaders ought to pay much more attention to Turkey’s security concerns and stop allowing terrorist to use their countries, institutions and financial resources to undermine freedom, democracy and peace in a key ally.

Turkey and Europe stand to gain much from a relationship of trust, mutual respect and solidarity. But this is not a one-way street and the burden cannot be placed just on Turkey. If Europe shows a cold shoulder to Turkey it is only natural for her to explore other possibilities. Furthermore, it does not make sense to question Turkey’s quest to expand its foreign policy outlook beyond the western horizon in a global politics of multiple centers. Instead, Europeans need to make a more concerted effort to overcome the legacy of Euro-centrism which, given the realities of the 21st century, hurts Europe more than others.

Islamic and Western societies do not have to be on a collision course. An ethics of co-existence can be established to nourish a context of common good between different cultural traditions and societies. This does not mean that everybody has to think and act in the same way. But there are those who want to create a perpetual state of hostility and mistrust between Islamic and Western societies in pursuit of short-term gains. They want to impose an absolutist and exclusivist notion of the self to the detriment and eventual obliteration of the other. This is a dangerous course and must be rejected by all stakeholders. Turkey-EU relations can be reset only on the foundations of equality, fairness and mutual respect.

Ibrahim Kalin is Presidential Spokesperson for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

The EU-Turkey Strategy Group project was made possible with funding from the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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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