‘Cautious Optimism’ for Turkey-EU Relations?

For the Turks, it is Europe's failure to acknowledge and meet its responsibilities toward Turkey in a number of areas including the Syrian civil war.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Brussels on Thursday in the last leg of a series of high-profile foreign trips. According to media reports, the Turkish leader’s meetings with EU representatives were “positive” and “productive.” The parties shared their concerns with their counterparts and agreed to work together to strengthen Turkey-EU relations.

Needless to say, Turkey’s willingness to give the Europeans an opportunity to make things right means that the Turkish leadership is prepared to normalize relations that were severely damaged by Europe’s actions after last summer’s coup attempt and ahead of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey. Just as the Trump administration reversed Washington’s policy and decided to work with the Turks, EU leaders too opted for cooperation – partly because they are eager to mitigate their own problems as NATO and the European Union undergo major changes due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach to the Atlantic alliance and Britain’s decision to break away from Brussels. At the same time, the Europeans did not want to deal with the fallout from a potential crisis with Turkey including a new refugee crisis. In other words, long-term strategic interests seem to have prevailed over existing tensions and concerns.

First and foremost, it was important for Turkey and the EU to make a commitment to continue accession talks because they can finally stop playing a game of chicken with Ankara’s membership bid. However, there should be no belief that all problems will go away just because the Europeans will stop calling for a suspension of membership talks and the Turks won’t respond by saying EU membership isn’t their only option. Moving forward, the Turkish leadership will continue to express its concerns about Europe’s failure to contribute to Ankara’s fight against terrorist groups including the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and the PKK. Nor will Brussels stop criticizing perceived problems with Turkish democracy and the country’s human rights record. After all, it is virtually impossible for Turkey and the EU to agree on the root cause of the problems that haunt their relationship.

For the Turks, it is Europe’s failure to acknowledge and meet its responsibilities toward Turkey in a number of areas including the Syrian civil war. In contrast, EU officials maintain that Ankara’s supposed move away from European values lies at the heart of the problem. Needless to say, it would be unrealistic to expect either side to change their mind, which begs the question of what could be done to maintain and increase the momentum in Turkey-EU relations.

Primarily, both parties must adopt a realistic approach and be prepared to take one step at a time, something that requires a lot of patience. At the same time, it is important for officials on both sides of the table to accept that the Turks won’t stop talking about counter-terrorism cooperation, and Brussels will maintain its focus on democratization and human rights. In order to put the relationship back on track, Turkey and the EU must acknowledge that interests and values aren’t mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, Turkey’s war on terror serves the interests of both Ankara and Brussels because it ensures that Turkish democracy remains intact. It is on the same basis that democratic consolidation can occur.

In order to maintain the momentum in Turkey-EU relations, both the Turks and the Europeans should make symbolic political gestures to promote the idea of cooperation. Modernizing the Customs Union agreement, making progress regarding readmission and visa-free travel and expediting the payment of 3 million euros pledged by Brussels for Syrian refugees, the relationship can be revived and repaired. Likewise, a commitment to resolving the Cyprus conflict could play a crucial role in membership talks.

Provided that politicians on both sides agree on the need to jumpstart the relationship, it would be best for everyone to focus on their homework. At the same time, the parties should engage in an open dialogue and cooperation in order to keep tensions under control. Meanwhile, some things need to be done in order to address problems related to perceptions and emotions attached to the Turkey-EU relationship. Moving forward, Brussels needs to keep a lid on the anti-Erdoğan campaign promoted by European institutions and media outlets. In return, the Turks need to dial down their critique of the West to facilitate progress. Again, it might be a good idea to launch a public relations campaign in Europe to explain why the presidential system is a good idea and what FETÖ and the PKK represent for the Turkish people if Turkey wants to break the spell of anti-Turkish lobbyists. Moreover, European bureaucrats, politicians and journalists could contribute to the rapprochement by thinking back to what Turkey has been through in recent years and empathize with Ankara.

If the Europeans are looking for a way to show their appreciation and respect for the Turkish people, they could make a big difference by extending their hand to Turkey on the anniversary of the July 15 coup attempt.

[Daily Sabah, May 31, 2017]

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