Europe and Turkey: The end of illusion

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Council President Donald Tusk (R) welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prior to a meeting at the European Council, in Brussels, Belgium, 25 May 2017. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

The summit held in Ankara on 4 April between Putin, Erdoğan, and Rouhani provides an eye-opening depiction of the rapidly changing discourse of 2018 geostrategic international rivalry, write Gilles Pargneaux, Dr Alon Ben Meir and Arbana Xharra.

Gilles Pargneaux is a French MEP with the Social-Democrats political group (S&D).

Dr. Alon Ben Meir is a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs specialised in conflict resolution.

Arbana Xharra is a Kosovar investigative journalist and winner of the US State Department’s Woman of Courage Award.

The Syrian conflict, the center of global attention for more than seven years, is now in the hands of three actors – Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Europe appears to be incongruously helpless in the face of this geopolitical environment, the consequences of which bears directly on the Western alliance.

Here, the case of Turkey is worrisome. President Erdoğan’s horrifying human rights violations, his blind regional ambitions, the Islamization of Turkey, and exploitation of the Syrian refugees in Turkey (wielding them against Europe), coupled with his military incursion into Syria, demand that the EU immediately reconsider its relations with Turkey. The relationship must be redefined, given the changing regional and international geopolitical dimension that has a direct effect on the EU’s national security.

Bad news for Europe and the West

The fact that the EU has been excluded from deliberations between Russia, Iran, and Turkey is a bad omen for the EU and the West in general. Much of the blame, however, rests with the EU in particular, as it has permitted Erdoğan to pursue policies domestically and internationally diametrically against EU interests, even though Turkey was going through the EU ascension process.

To be sure, the Ankara-Tehran-Moscow axis is marked by the growing triangular economic-military relations. Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missiles and the construction of a nuclear power plant by Russian company Rosatom in Turkey are only a few examples reflecting the deepening ties between the two sides. The summit in Ankara provided Erdoğan the platform he needs to project himself as the “leader of the Muslim world”, sending a clear message to the West that the “troika alliance” does not need the West’s input in solving Syria’s problems.

The EU must not underestimate the implications of this message. Kept unchallenged, this will have serious implications on the West’s regional allies in the Middle East

Between reconstruction of the Ottoman Empire and new Turkish strategic depth

The 2016 failed military coup in Turkey further cemented Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime. The coup, which Erdoğan considered a “gift from God”, gave him the excuse to go on a rampage against his real or perceived enemies, targeting the press, the academia, the Kurds, and anyone who is suspected of having any affiliation with the Gülenists.

He was able to do that through changes to the Turkish Constitution and the use of Islam as Turkey’s new national identity, which could not be questioned without one being accused of blasphemy. Erdoğan’s express purpose is to rebuild a regional neo-Ottoman power, which directly contradicts the Kemalist – secular, democratic – nature of Turkey, and is certainly against Western values.

The policy of “zero problems with neighbors”, envisioned by former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, was thrown out of the window. Today Turkey has problems with every neighbor, as Erdoğan is bent on spreading Turkey’s influence and Islamic doctrine on many of its neighbors with the clear objective of acquiring strategic depth in the region.

The outlook for a new EU-Turkey relationship

The authoritarian and strategic turn of Turkey calls for the EU to develop a new diplomatic strategy toward Turkey. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey obviously is no longer what it was hoped to be—a model of Islamic democracy that meets the principal requirements of the EU. Turkey’s diplomatic and military trajectory under Erdoğan will remain the same for years to come, and thus the process of Turkey’s accession to the EU must end. Moreover, the EU must not expand its commercial ties with Turkey unless there is an amelioration the situation of human rights in Turkey.  There cannot be such a thing as a double standard policy in our relation with Turkey.

Erdoğan ambition to reconstitute elements of the Ottoman era should have a chilling effect on any country with which Erdoğan seeks active bilateral relations. There are always sinister intentions behind his overtures, especially now that most of the countries in Balkans are in the process of negotiating entry to the European Union.

Therefore, the growing influence of Turkey in the Balkans cannot be ignored, where Turkey is systematically entrenching itself by increasing its commercial and cultural presence. The arrest of six Gülen-affiliated Turks residing in Kosovo on 29 March, the detention of Greek border guards to force the extradition of Turkish military, the Turkish promotion of Islamic studies, and the building of new or the rehabilitation of old mosques in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia represent the latest avatars of this neo-Ottoman influence, tinged with political Islam, from Turkey to Europe.

To conclude, from the best ally of EU and NATO, Turkey turns out to be an ambiguous and resentful partner. In this moving international context, we cannot avoid a redefinition of our relationship with Turkey, without yielding to its provocations. Here is the path EU diplomacy should follow.

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