Most Europeans used to think that a rejection of Turkey's accession to the EU would leave Turkey to sit idly by. However, considering Turkey's expanding geopolitical influence, it should not have been hard to predict that this scenario could unfold differently. Recent developments show that Turkey has adopted a new foreign policy, which basically says: ‘If not westwards, than eastwards'.
Turkey's change of attitude has caused considerable political consternation in the Middle East. The country is currently flexing its muscles in a region where it has not been this prominent since the end of the Ottoman Empire. Western policy makers view Turkey's foreign policy shift with great anxiety. With Iran, Syria, Sudan, Hamas and Hezbollah welcoming Turkey's comeback on the regional political stage, their fears have only been fuelled.
What has led Turkey to shift its foreign policy orientation towards the Middle East? Some claim that this new approach is the result of the AKP's Islamic orientation. However, more than anything, Europe's denunciation of Turkey's accession to the EU has prompted Turkey to re-orientate its foreign policy.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Europe is seeking to reinvent its culture. The European identity is broadly being defined as based on Christian-Judean-Humanistic foundations. Nationalists across Europe have argued that Turkey does not fit into the EU due to its Islamic tradition. By emphasizing Europe's 'shared tradition' they have successfully galvanized opposition among the European population against Turkish accession. The more support nationalists gained, the more (electoral) pressure has been exerted on EU policymakers to abandon serious talks with their Turkish counterparts.
The nationalists' increasingly hostile rhetoric with regard to Turkey has not served Europe's material interests, and is in fact pushing Europe towards confrontation with Turkey. Due to Turkey's geographic location, the country has emerged as the most important energy hub in the region. Because of European uneasiness regarding their increasing dependence on Russian energy, one would expect a rapprochement towards Turkey; instead, Europe has been alienating Turkey.
Not only could Turkey boost Europe's geopolitical strength in the wake of an ongoing competition for control of energy supplies, it could also function as a bridge between the Middle East and ‘Fort Europe'. Turkey could provide the EU access to a region that is of essential strategic importance.
Despite its new foreign policy, Turkey has not significantly changed its behavior. Therefore it is not too late to halt Turkey's reorientation towards the East. To this end, several points need to be addressed. First, the EU has to reassess its relation with Turkey based on material (mutual) interests, instead of cultural divergence. With this in mind, Turkey must be persuaded to return to the negotiation table by offering serious talks about the prospects of EU accession along with unambiguous, clearly stated demands.
Second, Turkey perceives itself as a regional heavyweight and expects to be treated accordingly. Depending on how the West deals with Turkey it could either play a constructive role or become an undermining factor in the region. If Turkey would be treated as a respected ally, instead of as a buffer state, it would have more of an incentive to play a constructive role in which, for example, it could provide the West a way out of the nuclear stalemate with Iran. Therefore the EU and the US should engage Turkey more actively when it comes to important issues in the Middle East such as Iraq - especially with regard to Kurdistan - the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the nuclear standoff with Iran. Simultaneously, the EU should work on the improvement of the strained relations between Israel and Turkey. The EU should press Israel to resume peace negotiations with Syria in which Turkey should be allowed to continue to mediate between the two states.
Finally, there is a lot of work to be done in the European public debate. Perceptions can be altered by raising awareness of Turkey's strategic importance and by informing the public about the additional benefits that come with Turkish accession. Ultimately, this responsibility lies with the governments of EU member states. The Irish rejection of the EU Lisbon Treaty illustrates the problem Europe is facing. Cultural issues, as in the case with Turkey, predominantly motivated the Irish ‘no'. Nevertheless, the ‘no' turned into a ‘yes' when the public was informed about the negative effects of identity politics. Europe should draw a lesson from this: identity politics have not led Europe anywhere. For that reason, it is time for Europe to pursue its material interests. Preventing Turkey from going eastward is therefore essential.
Ghassan Dahhan is pursuing a MA in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam.
Related Material From the Atlantic Community?
- Editorial Team: Turkey: Still a Bridge Between West and East?
- Gamze Avci: Turkey: Looking West, Moving East?
- Sonja Davidovic: Turkey is Key to Europe's Energy Diversification