EU-Turkey deal: Decisive or divisive?

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

Ahmet Davutoğlu meeting with European Union presidents last week. [European Council]

If European Union leaders were expecting Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to meekly accede to their expectations and demands at the migration summit last week, they were clearly mistaken, write Mehmet Öğütçü and Stephen Jones.

Mehmet Öğütçü is chairman of the Global Resources Partnership and Stephen Jones is a partner of energy advocacy and advisory service Global Resources Communications.

The summit turned into a bruising political battle, at which years of Turkish frustration at the EU’s ambivalence towards its eastern partner surfaced.

Ordinarily, the effective takeover of a major newspaper, Zaman, would have caused the summit to have been suspended. The fact that it went ahead at all shows just how much the EU now depends on Turkey politically, economically and for its security.

The summit was also a sign of Germany’s strength and Angela Merkel’s weakness. With her domestic poll numbers declining rapidly, she had no option but to agree to doubling EU aid to €6 billion to help Turkey deal with the crisis.

If the details of a deal can be finalised this week, and if it sticks, both the EU and Turkey can start to project their diplomatic efforts more cohesively towards an end to the Syrian civil war. Syria could become the axis on which the EU and Turkey meet, consolidating their tempestuous relationship into a membership deal for Ankara.

But it could also be a crucible in which this relationship finally burns out. The EU must now make rapid progress on fashioning a genuine visa-free travel deal for Turks and a renewed push to open – and close – more negotiating chapters in the accession process, even if Turkish membership remains far off for now.

What is clear is that the Syrian morass will endure for decades, even if the conflict ends. Turkey and the EU share a responsibility to stabilise Syria and limit the schemes of Iran and Russia. It’s also in neither side’s interest for so-called Islamic State to become a permanent feature of the country’s fractured political landscape.

Turkey’s leadership on Syria is vital for an EU beset and distracted by several simultaneous internal crises. There is also undoubtedly an implicit desire on Europe’s part for Turkey, with its robust military, to keep Russia’s irredentist ambitions in check. The United States, itself preoccupied by the upcoming presidential election and diplomatic fatigue in the Middle East, is also keen to see Europe develop a more prominent and hands-on approach.

Russia has been largely unpunished for its adventurism in Georgia and Ukraine over the past decade. Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane that violated its airspace was a reminder to the Kremlin that Ankara is neither fragile like Russia’s neighbours in its ‘near abroad’, nor bound by the same nervousness, incoherence and reluctance as Brussels.

The EU should encourage Turkey’s rise as a regional power and a counterweight to Russia’s relentless lunge for influence. Quid pro quo, Turkey needs to know it can rely on the EU’s political backing and NATO’s solidarity through Article 5 of the Washington Treaty in exercising this leadership role if the regional situation deteriorates further. Wider geostrategic priorities and common goals should take precedence over quibbles about Turkey’s internal politics, disturbing though recent developments in Turkey have been.

Despite its increasingly authoritarian political leadership, Ankara is still a positive role model to the rest of the Muslim world, and can help address the root causes of the Syrian Civil War and the IS phenomenon. The West has spent the past 15 years seeking to impose democracy on some Muslim countries, with scant and counterproductive results, and without appreciating its democratic, constitutionally secular neighbour on its eastern fringe. If nation-building is still in vogue in some EU capitals, Turkey is surely an indispensable partner – especially in Syria.

Turkey’s suspicion of Iran and Russia is also driving its policy in Syria, and specifically its demand – echoed loudly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – that Bashar Al-Assad should leave office and create space for a legitimate, moderate opposition before a process of political transition can begin. Although Western leaders have eased off this demand, many of them also share unease about conducting diplomacy with a newly resurgent and sanctions-free Iran, which has a long history of meddling in the region.

With Russia and Iran pursuing their own narrow interests on the chessboard that Syria has become, Turkey needs to show restraint and pursue an inclusive long-term vision shorn of sectarian and ethnic bias. It is tempting to reconsider Turkey’s proposal to create a buffer zone inside Syria to cushion against both refugee flows and attacks by the Syrian Kurds, whose brethren in eastern Turkey are being blamed for Sunday’s deadly car bombing in Ankara.

Instead, Turkey should seek to exploit the EU’s introspection and place itself at the heart of the Syrian solution on the EU’s behalf, and for its own benefit. After all, in a future EU – however it evolves – in which Turkey is a member, the Syrian border will be the EU’s eastern frontier.

Arguably, the EU is also pursuing its own narrow interests by throwing blandishments at Turkey: few Turkish diplomats forget that just a few short years ago, Germany and France were both adamantly opposed to Turkish EU accession. So now is the time for Turkey to drive home its strategic advantage by fashioning an end to the crisis emanating from Syria. The agreement expected at this week’s European Council could be transformative.

However, an agreement should not be seen as Turkish opportunism in the face of a weak EU. It should be seen more as a long overdue recalibration of the relationship that reflects realities on the ground. For Turkey, this is not about money. It is about addressing a humanitarian catastrophe while trying to manage attempts by others to mould a new geopolitical reality in its backyard.

Turkey has already spent €10 billion on handling the refugee crisis, which is causing severe strain on the country’s political, social, economic and security situation. Merkel’s generosity pales into insignificance when compared to the burden Turkey is bearing, almost alone among Muslim countries.

For that reason, the EU’s lapse into its default state of reticence towards Turkey could lead to disaster in the region. If Turkey brings migratory flows under control, the EU must demonstrate an unshakeable commitment to an equal alliance with Turkey. A lukewarm, irresolute policy towards Ankara will surely signal the end of the historic opportunity both parties have worked towards. Equally, its knock-on effect could be the further destabilisation of fragile nations in the region and the emboldening of a reckless Russia.

Questions of press freedom and human rights are important in the EU-Turkey relationship, and migration is a critical issue now, but they are a small part of a much broader picture. Now is the EU’s chance to complete the painting of that picture. Turkey is in a strong position to remould the relationship to reflect its new ascendancy, and to address the human tragedy that Syria has suffered: the EU needs to recognise this reality and respond readily by rewarding Turkey’s European aspirations.

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