The EU needs to stop playing hardball with Turkey

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Outdoor market. Istanbul, 2008. [John Walker/Flickr]

A more inclusive EU would symbolize a new era of global cooperation, validating Turkey’s record as a meaningful partner, writes Yusif Babanly.

Yusif Babanly is the co-founder of the U.S. Azeris Network (USAN)

As ISIS further disrupts the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis stokes fears about European energy security this winter, the EU must reconsider its attitude toward Turkey’s EU membership and further cultivate its ties with this rare Muslim ally. In that increasingly chaotic region, doing so would send positive, reassuring signals to other Muslim partners that support Europe’s efforts to ensure its security, but are confounded by its apparent double-standards, and might soon as a result begin to rethink their geopolitical allegiances.

Indeed, although few experts would disagree that Turkey’s contributions to Europe have proved critical politically and economically, some old-school EU policymakers continue to postpone – and seemingly on religious grounds – the country’s entry into an organization that is in dire need of assistance to reduce its energy dependence on Russia and to prevent the spread of the ISIS threat from the Middle East to Europe.

Turkey has the unique capacity to assist the EU in addressing these crises.

Not only does it actively participate in Western-oriented energy projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC), South Caucasus and planned Trans Anatolian (TANAP) pipelines; it’s also a military partner bordering Syria and Iraq. On this backdrop, as ISIS expands alarmingly into the northern regions of these countries, Turkey has become an essential military partner for the EU and the international community.

Granting Turkey EU membership would most likely expedite joint global military action against ISIS. Turkey boasts a history of assisting the EU in military and peacekeeping missions, as seen through the EU Force Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. Yet it has been slow to initiate a campaign against ISIS at Europe’s behest, as it increasingly finds itself on the periphery of the EU, despite its exhaustive reforms. Here, Europe has failed miserably to set a benchmark for its other Muslim partners.

But Europe’s reluctance to grant Turkey EU membership is even more paradoxical given their remarkable levels of economic integration. Two-thirds of Turkey’s foreign investments are derived from EU member-states today, while roughly 40% of its foreign trade is realized with these countries. At the same time, Turkey’s economic growth after the global financial crisis outshines that of most EU countries, averaging about 5% in past years, which is far above the organization’s startlingly low average of under 1% in 2013.

Yet, perhaps more importantly, Turkey’s value lies in its influence over Europe’s other Muslim partners, including Central Asia, but also notably Azerbaijan, an energy-rich, reform-oriented former Soviet state.

Wedged between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan has in recent years advanced a foreign policy based on the idea of “two countries, one people,” referring to Turkey, as historically and linguistically the Azerbaijanis are ethnic cousins to Turks. Markedly, since Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey has served as its principal partner. The countries remain heavily engaged economically, culturally and also militarily, having signed tens of defense agreements. Azerbaijan itself has actively participated in Western-led peacekeeping missions, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, and was one of the first countries to offer its territory and airspace to the United States in the War on Terror.

At the same time, Azerbaijan’s importance for the EU is increasing given its abundant natural resources.

Over the past decade, Azerbaijan has played an instrumental role in ensuring Europe’s energy security by developing the BTC and South Caucasus pipeline projects, which offer a much-needed alternative energy source outside the Middle East, and planning further such projects. TANAP, for instance, which will launch in 2019, will directly supply energy to European markets, somewhat reducing EU dependence on Russia, not necessarily by volumes, but by the very fact of diversification of the sources, and creating alternatives. The project is particularly important given the signing of an outline deal in November between Turkey and Turkmenistan, which holds the world’s fourth largest gas reserves, to supply gas to the pipeline.

Oddly enough, however, despite their strategic value for the EU and their democratic reforms, Turkey and Azerbaijan all too often find themselves the butt of unfounded criticism in European and U.S. media.

Amid these dubious accusations, EU membership for Turkey would serve as a positive signal to the Muslim world that Europe is not hypocritical, and is interested in cooperation that supersedes its energy needs.

Surely, little stands to be gained from playing hardball with Turkey.

Moreover, a more inclusive EU would symbolize a new era of global cooperation, validate Turkey’s record as a meaningful partner, and pave the way for other Muslim allies to cooperate under shared European values. It would also significantly increase Europe’s chances of regaining world leadership status and serve as a message to Muslims everywhere that the EU is prepared to engage with moderate, peaceful partners.