Banners showing modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decorate a building as people watch Erdogan’s speech, during a rally for the upcoming referendum, in his hometown city of Rize, in the Black Sea region, on Monday.
EU-Turkish relations are going through a particularly difficult patch. The ban on Turkish politicians campaigning in the Netherlands and Germany precipitated a strong reaction from the Turkish side that went as far as predicting imminent religious wars between the “crescent and the cross.” This comes on the heels of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proliferating calls for a referendum on quitting the European Union membership negotiations, breaking away from the West and possibly joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is not solely a consequence of the tension surrounding the upcoming referendum in Turkey, on constitutional amendments that many fear will consolidate autocratic rule in the country; it is also a consequence of a deeply felt discontent toward the EU and the West. This is partly driven by longstanding grievances resulting from perceptions of being treated as the “other” by Europeans, and more recently from the failure to relate to the trauma that Turkey experienced at the hands of the putschists who staged the failed coup attempt last July.
However, three stark realities stand in the way of a rupture between Turkey and the West. First and foremost, the EU remains Turkey’s most important economic partner. The EU for Turkey means foreign direct investment, trade – at a time when Turkey’s export markets in its neighborhood, including Russia, are shrinking – and tourism. As long as Turkey does not have oil and gas to export, it needs the EU to keep its economy ticking and to provide jobs for its citizens.
Second, Turkey remains deeply integrated within the transatlantic community, a fact that once imbued it with prestige and “model” status in its neighborhood. It is this prestige that the recent trajectory of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy has squandered; for it to be regained, Turkey will need to rebuild cooperation with the West.
Third, the chaos in the neighborhood and especially in Syria is adversely affecting Turkish national security. “Snuggling up” to an assertive Russia is unlikely to serve Turkey’s long-term security needs and interests. In this regard, many Ukrainians, Georgians, Crimean Tatars and others must be looking to Turkey with envy for its longstanding NATO membership. It is also not surprising that a recent survey conducted by Kadir Has University in Istanbul registered robust support for NATO membership at 58 percent, in contrast to support for EU membership, which fell to 27 percent.
Despite the persistent uncertainty surrounding the new US administration’s foreign policy, the dire predictions that the EU was set to unravel under the weight of its financial woes, the rise of populism and Brexit have so far not come to pass. If anything, there are signs that the EU economy is recovering and that the public is moving away from populist candidates in favor of pro-European centrists. These important developments should not go unnoticed at a time when the EU is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
It was Turkish general and statesman Ismet Inonu – a close confidant of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic – who, after signing the Association Agreement in 1963, remarked, “The EEC was the most courageous historical achievement of human intelligence… today, we have signed an agreement that forever ties Turkey to Europe.”
The importance of EU accession for Turkey has been echoed by two organizations, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD) and the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation (IKV), on the occasion of the EU’s 60th anniversary. However, it is not just Turkey that needs the EU. Recognizing the reciprocal nature of the interdependence between the EU and Turkey in terms of economics, politics and security will be critical, when combined with Turkey’s NATO membership, to reviving a “three-way, win-win-win formula: Peace, democracy and prosperity for Europe, for Turkey and for the world.” An alternative should not even be entertained, at least not as a viable option toward implementing this formula. The litmus test for the future of the relationship, however, will be whether, whatever the outcome of the referendum, Turkey will be able to resuscitate its democracy and rule of law.
* Kemal Kirisci is TUSIAD senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at Brookings.