Isn’t Turkey of interest to Europe?

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

Ömer Çelik, Turkey's minister for EU affairs, with Federica Mogherini during a visit to Brussels. [European Commission]

European and Turkish leaders damaged relations between their countries following the near-coup in Turkey last month—and there are too many important policy issues at stake, writes Samuel Doveri Vesterbye.

Samuel Doveri Vesterbye is director of the European Neighbourhood Council (ENC).

In the weeks following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, an already precarious Turkish-European relationship suffered a few extra blows.

European media and government officials were quick to criticise Turkey’s investigations into the ‘Gulen movement’, sometimes without proper context and understanding.

At the same time, Turkey continued to fan the flames of populism at home, often criticising the West with no end.

But based on national interests, Turkey and Europe should be moderating their rhetoric in order to increase cooperation on urgent policy issues that continuously affect both sides.

Here are some policy reasons why Europe should cooperate with Turkey, instead of publicly criticising its neighbour without any tangible effects.

Refugee crisis

In most policy circles, it is widely accepted that the refugee crisis paralysed Europe and created an emergency that nearly became unsolvable in 2015. Europe’s incapability to deal with millions of newcomers quickly became evident through the lack of policy coordination, support mechanisms, integration and welfare provisions. The West wasn’t prepared and the impact rocked the foundation of Europe, leading to consequences like rising xenophobia, Brexit and soaring European political disunity.

Turkey is part of the refugee deal that prevents Europe from running into unmanageable territory. Geographically connected to Europe, it is also fully integrated into the European neighbourhood and accession process, helping with border management, counterterrorism and migration. If Germany, France and the UK consider the refugee crisis a national priority, they should act cooperatively and coherently, as Turkey remains an important geo-strategic neighbour.

Defence cooperation

Despite Turkey’s previous hesitance to fully engage in fighting ISIS, Europe cannot do without Turkish counterterrorism and efforts in de-radicalisation. Turkey remains Europe’s primary military ally in a time of increasing escalation and violence throughout the wider neighbourhood. Military strategists argue that the NATO Incirlik airbase and Turkey’s importance as a western ally cannot be overstated.

If Europe distances itself from Turkey, we can assume that policy coordination will become more difficult for European countries, meaning they will be faced with more terrorism, lower defence mechanisms and weaker foreign policy leverage abroad.

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Muslim-model at home and abroad

Finding a Muslim model of democracy hasn’t always been easy. European Muslim communities make up 15% of Paris’ population, 20% of Stockholm, 12% of London and 25% of Brussels.

Europe needs to partner with a reliable and secular Muslim country like Turkey in order to speak to its own Muslim populations, as well as to its neighbouring countries on foreign policy. The longer Europe waits to allow Turkey to dominate this narrative, the more it will alienate its own citizens and surrounding countries – both of which are crucial for European integration, social cohesion and anti-radicalisation.

One should not overlook the fact that Turkish communities in Europe are eagerly following the Turkish debate. And if Europe manages to alienate them along with Turkey, it will have thrown away partners abroad and at home for countering radicalisation and promoting European multiculturalism.

Civil war, national unity and democracy

Judging by the Turkish police and gendarmerie’s allegiance to the government, contrasted to the military coup plotters, most analysts today say that Turkey came remarkably close to civil war on the night of 15-16 July.

It goes without saying that instability and civil war not only pose a serious ethical issue for Europe, but would also impact nearly all facets of European life, from new refugee flows and border violence to calls for intervention, increased terrorism and trade destabilisation. Another ‘Balkan tragedy’ would surely be unmanageable on all sides.

But Turkey has moved towards internal political dialogue following this close brush with disaster.

A country that has long suffered deeply from political polarisation saw cross-party developments over the past weeks involving opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Such moves would have been entirely unimaginable only days before the failed coup.

European diplomats should publicly support these initiatives and meet with Turkish government officials, both to help political unity and make sure that such positive moves are continuously supported and made into sustainable movements.

Up until now, most goodwill gestures – like German and British leaders’ visits to Turkey and Federica Mogherini’s quick support for the government during the night of 15 July – were overshadowed by criticism that has fallen on deaf ears in Turkey.

Had European leaders reserved their criticism to private meetings and spoken with more compassion, thy might have held onto an important bargaining chip for later negotiations about Turkey’s future and democracy.

Instead, most European countries have ignored the importance of cross-party consolidation that could have real potential for Turkey and Europe, as well as vital national interests, which have maintained stability and peace for the past century.

The question now remains when Europeans will reach out – and whether Turkey can tone down its populism.

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