Turkey was once the perennial candidate for EU membership but now that the membership talks are all but blocked it is pursuing a multivector policy, engaging with neighbours in the Middle East, Caucasus and the Balkans. Relations with nearly all neighbours, with the notable exceptions of Armenia and Cyprus, are thriving cemented by trade and investment links, people-to-people con-tacts, tourist flows, and not least the success of Turkish popular culture. Meanwhile Ankara’s for-eign policy seeks to advance economic interest and open new markets around the globe for the country’s booming export sector. When we asked Rizanur Meral, president of the influential TUSKON business association, what he considered his greatest success, his answer was: Africa. As the EU is going through a painful period scrambling to tackle the Eurozone crisis and return to growth, Turkish economy expanded by the staggering 9% in 2010.
Meanwhile the Arab Spring has opened further opportunities for Turkey but also raised questions. There is a lively debate whether Turkey can serve as a model or at least a source of inspiration for countries like Egypt and Tunisia in their quest for more pluralist political regimes. Meanwhile violence in Libya and Syria exposed some of the pitfalls in Turkey’s neighbourhood policy. It is faced with the difficult task of balancing between engagement with the regimes in North Africa and the Middle East and embracing popular calls for ending the authoritarian status quo.
One thing is certain. The neighbourhood is much higher on Turkey’s foreign policy agenda than the pursuit of EU membership. The rising political clout of Turkey benefits from the advanced relationship with the EU – the Customs Union completed in 1996 and the accession nego-tiations that kicked off back in 2005. At the same time, neighbourhood activism dramatically re-casts Turkey from a demandeur, a role played in earnest since the Helsinki Summit in 1999 granted the country candidate status, into an independent power pole EU and the US has to reck-on with. This aboutface has to do with the sense of betrayed promises shared by a majority of Turkish citizens and the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), government and, at a deeper level, the ‘Turk’s-only-friend-is-another-Turk’ mentality ingrained into national political culture.
It is also crystal clear that the EU and Turkey are now facing a critical point in their relationship. For some time, the Union has been pretending to be negotiating with Ankara on membership while Ankara has been pretending to be taking Brussels seriously. This façade is beginning to crumble and 2010 showed more than one crack. In contrast to years past, few bothered to read the regular monitoring report issued by the European Commission in November 2011.
Turkey remains a profoundly divisive issue within the EU. Germany and France have been openly opposing accession arguing instead for a form of privileged partnership. President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that ‘Turkey is a great civilisation, but not a European one’. The EU collective blocks 8 chapters over Ankara’s refusal to implement the 2004 Additional Protocol to its Association Agreement with the EC and open ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and aircraft. Cyprus continues blocking the negotiations on 6 further chap-ters, tacitly encouraged by Berlin and Paris. France is also wielding its veto on four dossiers it considers directly tied to membership, as opposed to the vaguely defined ‘privileged partnership’ put forward by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. (Although, in all fairness, Germany is still formally in favour of Turkish membership due to a concession made to the junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats). The pro-accession camp includes the UK, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Italy and most member states in Central and Eastern Europe, including neighbours Bulgaria and Romania.
The end result is a stalemate in membership negotiations. And the result is not good for the EU. Compared to the period 2002-6, the golden era of the EU’s ‘transformative power’ in Turkey, the Union has all but lost its leverage. Diplomats in Ankara may talk the EU talk, but Brussels was not a reference point in neither the ill-fated "Kurdish Opening" embarked upon by the AKP in late 2009 or indeed the constitutional referendum on 12 September 2010 that rocked Turkey’s domestic scene. The Turkish government is insisting that it is implementing the acquis even without formal negotiations on the relevant chapters but there is little evidence to support that. Time is running out and the EU is heading to a crisis, at a time that the Middle East and North Africa are undergoing tectonic shifts unseen for two generations or so.
EU policymakers should strive to engage meaningfully Turkey, which is both more democratic and less prone to follow the West. Ankara is a potential partner not only in Egypt and Tunisia but also in the Western Balkans, Iraq, the Southern Caucasus, and hopefully in Palestine and Lebanon. Yet the EU has failed to integrate Turkey in frameworks such as its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The negotiation chapter on CSDP is still unopened and is very likely to be vetoed by Cyprus. Turkey keeps at an arm’s length from the ENP, which it sees as an alternative track to accession, although it is the physical link between the policy’s eastern (post-Soviet) and southern (Middle East and North Africa) branches. Turkey is a key ally in the effort to diversify energy supplies to the EU, especially given strategic projects such as the Nabucco gas pipeline.
What EU needs is a parallel track for strategic dialogue with Turkey on regional issues of common concern. The dramatic events in the Middle East and North Africa present a perfect opportunity for coordinated action or, at the very least, close collaboration and structured exchange of views and ideas. Such strategic dialogue will complement rather than cancel the ongoing accession talks. Foreign policy cooperation on issues that pose a common challenge is the pragmatic way out of the deadlock and a means to inject more trust into the deteriorating bilateral relationship. Contrary to popular belief, Turkey still needs the EU as much as the EU needs Turkey as an ally. Whether leaders on both sides will seize the opportunity we are yet to see.