Turkey First: Europe Must Work With Not Against Ankara


By Julian French.


“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Alphen, Netherlands. 7 February. How should Europe deal with a changing Turkey? I say ‘Europe’, on matters strategic Europe is increasingly coming to mean a mix of great powers and great institutions acting in as much unison as they can generate over any one issue, at any one time. One of the many issues faced by what is now a hard liberal European establishment is how to deal with legitimised illiberal regimes that are important to Europe. The tendency of late has been for Europe to become a whining city on a molehill; offering judgement without influence. This tendency is particularly evident in the ‘hold one’s nose’ way European leaders deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.  Consequently, Europe is in danger of losing Turkey for the first time since President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk aligned his secular regime with the European West a century ago.

The need for a new Turkey policy is pressing. In a forthcoming referendum it is likely more power will be ‘granted’ to the presidency. If so President Erdogan’s Turkey First policy will be bolstered, and Europe’s Turkey dilemma will become even more acute. Therefore, like it or not, in this new age of Realpolitik President Erdogan is vital to the security and stability of Europe and Europeans must recognise that. Unfortunately, Europe’s strategic partnership with Ankara looks ever more like a fractious frozen alliance.

Writing my latest book The New Geopolitics of Terror: Demons and Dragons (Routledge 2017), which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced, one theme ran through the research; the vital importance of Turkey to the security and stability of Europe, the Middle East, and much of Western Asia. Turkey is also a vital member of NATO, and Ankara’s co-operation remains critical if Europe is not to see a large portion of the 3 million refugees Turkey currently hosts moving rapidly towards Schengenland.

Why is Europe losing Turkey? Europe’s relationship with Turkey is certainly deteriorating. Last week tensions flared with Greece over disputed islands and, of course, the future of Turkish Cyprus remains a constant source of friction between the EU and Turkey.  However, it is Turkey’s burgeoning Realpolitik relationship with Russia that is of great concern to many in Europe.

Turkey First also reflects both Erdogan’s ambitions for and concerns about his country at a time or regional and global flux. Last week, in a sign of the shifting power balance, both Germany’s Merkel and Britain’s May went to Ankara, partly to reassure President Erdogan, partly to influence him. My sources tell me May’s visit was a success, Merkel’s visit less so.  Put simply, President Erdogan’s Turkey First policy reflects his feeling of abandonment, and at times betrayal by the West over Syria. Above all, President Erdogan feels deeply offended by what he saw as European fence-sitting during the failed July 2016 military coup attempt. And yet, whilst Europe is in danger of losing Turkey it has not as yet lost Turkey. It is clear Ankara is of a similar view. For example, Ankara’s attitude within NATO has been as constructive as at any time over recent years. In other words, there is still much to play for.

Much of Europe’s Turkish problem is, as so often, in Europe. Europeans tend to think that once a country is a member of a Western-leaning institution there is no need for policy towards it. The Obama administration had no policy worthy of the name towards Turkey, whilst a Europe embroiled in its endless self-obsession simply took came to take Turkey for granted. Now, President Erdogan is reminding Europeans just how mistaken such indifference is. Henceforth, like Europe’s relationship with President Trump, its relationship with President Erdogan is also likely to become far more transactional in nature.  This is particularly so now that the fantasy/pretence of forever in the future Turkish EU membership has been by and large buried.

What would a Turkey policy look like? It would certainly need to include more trade access, more development aid, and more free movement of Turks into the EU. Indeed, it will be interesting to see the impact and implications of the eventual Brexit deal for Turkey. However, the crux of Turkey’s relationship with Europe will pivot on Turkey’s own strategic neighbourhood. It is this neighbourhood which presents both the need for, and challenge to, a new European policy towards Turkey.

In alliances policy, strategy, and structure must be constantly re-aligned. Most of that process is enacted through incremental adjustments over time. However, at times hard reality must be confronted, not finessed away, and it is precisely hard reality Europeans find so hard to either confront or manage. For Turkey that means a Europe that finally takes a position on the status of the Kurds. Ankara is deeply concerned that the instrumentalisation by the West of the Kurds in the struggle against Islamic State implies some future pay-off for the Kurds in their aspirations for a state that would straddle much of what is today northern Iraq and Syria, and which would border Turkey. Turkey would never accept the existence of such a state given the implications for its own eastern provinces.

The profound challenge for European policy-makers is thus; how can President Erdogan be reassured about Western policy towards the Kurds without at the same time (once again) abandoning the Kurds? Now, I am too much the historian to pretend there are easy solutions to what is an acute policy and strategy conundrum. However, having no policy at all on what is a key issue for a key ally at a key moment is also no option. Therefore, if Turkey is to be convinced that continued investment in its alliances and partnerships with the West is worth it then the West, Europe in particular, will need to engage on this most sensitive of issues.

The Trump Administration may well take a purely Realpolitik position on this issue if Ankara supports US attacks on Islamic State. That would leave a dangerous policy vacuum. Particularly so, given that beyond gestures Europe has by and large retreated from any meaningful engagement in Turkey’s strategic neighbourhood. Therefore, if Europeans really want themselves and their sacred values to be taken seriously it is Europe (with Britain) which should now embark on the diplomatic challenge of assisting Turks and Kurds alike in the search for an enduring political settlement. The Turkish-Kurdish relationship is probably as important to regional peace and stability as the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. However, if, as usual, Europe bottles the challenge, issues yet more meaningless declarations or offers yet more inactive joint actions, then Turkey First could well come in time to mean Europe last.

To understand the strategic importance of Turkey to Europe, just look at a map. This importance was reinforced in my mind a few years ago in Ankara when as Acting Head of Delegation I had the honour to formally lay a wreath at the memorial tomb of President Ataturk. A few days later I was standing in General Ataturk’s World War One command position high above ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay, where Allied troops landed in 1915, and from which they were bloodily evicted. History was, as ever, as eloquent about the present as it was about the past.

Turkey is a European power and should be treated as such. It is my firm belief that the best future for Turkey remains in a strong alliance with its Western partners. However, such alliance is also in the interests the West, particularly Europe. Therefore, Europe must stop seeing Turkey as a frozen alliance, and work far harder to convince President Erdogan that it is both friend and ally.

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