Just like Britain's decision to withdraw from the European Union, Turkey's policies must reflect national interests
The United Kingdom on Thursday held a referendum for the second time in history to decide whether to withdraw from the European Union. The original vote in 1975 had resulted in Britain remaining a part of the union. This week, they decided otherwise.Ahead of Thursday's vote, British voters expressed their dissatisfaction with a number of EU policies, including immigration, security and finance. In the wake of this historic decision, a referendum result too close to call until the last minute, the United Kingdom will have to reconsider its role in Europe.
To be clear, London had always enjoyed certain privileges due to their unhappiness with the centralized decision-making mechanism in Brussels. Despite being an EU member, Britain never became part of the Schengen zone. Nor have they adopted the Euro.
The fact that Britain held a referendum four decades after joining the European Union shows that Brussels is in serious trouble. On Friday, a number of experts and commentators expressed concern that Brexit could create a domino effect in addition to posing serious financial problems. Against the backdrop of an existential crisis, the European Union continues to experience serious problems with Turkey, which has been trying to join the organization for more than five decades. Although some progress was made in 2005 when accession talks began, various problems along the way ran negotiations into a wall.
Turkey's relations with the European Union temporarily improved last year when thousands of Syrian refugees started arriving on the Greek islands. Although completely unrelated, Ankara and Brussels effectively agreed on a deal that would involve the readmission of illegal immigrants by Turkey and the Union taking necessary steps to offer visa-free travel to Turkish citizens. But following Europe's calls on Turkey to narrow down its definition of terrorism as a precondition of visa liberalization, Ankara and Brussels face another crisis.
In recent weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım stated that Turkey would turn its back on visa liberalization for the sake of fighting terrorism - the country's top priority. In response, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters that Erdoğan would "have to explain to the Turkish people why Turks didn't get visa-free travel if he refused to implement the readmission treaty."
Claiming that the European Union did not want to admit Turkey because it was a predominantly Muslim country, the Turkish president said Brussels applied double standards to Ankara's war on terror: "We could ask the people if Turkey should continue negotiations with the European Union as Britain did," Erdoğan stated last week. "The European Commission president should start thinking about how he will explain [to European voters] when millions of refugees end up at the gates of Europe."
Erdoğan's statement was intended to convey the message that the EU's attitude toward Turkey was unacceptable and that Brussels tried to strong-arm Ankara over counter-terrorism policy even though Europe had no choice but to work with the Turks on readmission.
The heated exchange reflects tensions between Turkey and the European Union, whose leaders will presumably engage in harsher criticism of Ankara's policies as the authorities move against the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) controlled municipalities over terror finance allegations.
Moving forward, European leaders will blame their problems with Ankara on what they like to pretend is the Turkish president's authoritarian tendencies. But the EU faces an existential problem that it can no longer ignore.
Just like Britain's decision to withdraw from the European Union, Turkey's policies must reflect national interests. If the relationship no longer serves the interests of both sides, there will be no choice but to take stock and make changes.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.