As the world changes, so too must Europe's approach to Turkey

Published 26.03.2018 00:00
Updated 26.03.2018 01:49

Senior officials from Turkey and the European Union will meet at the Bulgarian port city of Varna today to discuss bilateral relations along with regional and global developments. Ahead of the historic meeting, Turkish officials called on European leaders to end what they described as a "political and artificial gridlock regarding Turkey's negotiation process." Meanwhile in Europe, voices of reason continue to be silenced by growing populism, racism and xenophobia.

Both Turkey and the European Union have experienced major changes since the Turkish accession process was formally launched in 2005. Over the past 13 years, there were several attempts by extra-parliamentary forces to overthrow Turkey's democratically elected government. At the same time, the country experienced a rise in terror attacks by Daesh and the PKK, partly due to the deteriorating security situation in Syria and Iraq.

In recent years, the Turkish government's response to those challenges repeatedly came under attack by European leaders, whom the Turkish people view as sponsors of terrorist organizations targeting Turkish citizens. Meanwhile in Europe, progressive governments have been replaced by center-right and far-right movements in the wake of a devastating economic crisis, terror attacks and a seemingly unstoppable influx of refugees.

To make matters worse, Brexit and Donald Trump's surprise victory in the United States raised questions about "European values" and everything for which the European Union claimed to stand for – pluralism, multiculturalism and economic and social liberalism. The Varna Summit takes place at a crucial time in the relationship, which seems no longer sustainable unless certain steps are taken without further delay.

Moving forward, European leaders must ensure that the EU's relations with Turkey be shaped by mutual interests and rational decision-making rather than populism and a set of unofficial "cultural criteria" to which Turks have been subjected for decades.

In particular, European institutions, including the European Parliament, must liberate themselves from the yoke of populist rhetoric now that elections are over in many countries. At this time, national leaders have a responsibility toward European citizens to finally stop campaigning and start governing. Most importantly, they must establish through their actions that Europe does not have a problem with the average Turk – that the old continent isn't being ruled by a group of racists and that European leaders can make decisions on the basis of their interests.

To be clear, Turkey and the European Union could achieve great things through cooperation. The 2015 refugee deal is a case in point. Under an agreement to stem illegal immigration, Turkish and European authorities were able to crack down on human trafficking networks, establish legal mechanisms for relocation to European countries, create negative incentives against illegal immigration and provide financial support to social programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

As the Trump administration promotes economic protectionism and undermines Washington's traditional relationship with Europe, Turkey and the European Union could protect their political and economic interests by working more closely together.

Until now, the seeming unreliability of European leaders as solution partners severely restricted the possibility of meaningful cooperation. By harboring known terrorists and supporting terrorist organizations, including the PKK and FETÖ, certain European governments enraged not only President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but the Turkish public in general. Consequently, advocating closer ties between Turkey and the European Union became significantly more difficult in the country.

Moreover, recent statements by certain European officials about Turkey's military operation against the PKK and its Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)/People's Protection Units (YPG), in northwestern Syria raised questions about the compatibility of Turkish and European interests in the Middle East. Although Turkish officials repeatedly said that their troops would leave Afrin as soon as national security threats in the area are eliminated, calls by the German foreign minister and others on Turkey to comply with international law make the Turkish people question Europe's motives.

Repairing the relationship with the European Union, which was strained by such actions, would be in Europe's best interest.

Having successfully sheltered European countries from illegal immigration and the influx of refugees, Turkey is a key partner for Europe in their efforts to stop foreign fighters from going back to their native countries, radicalizing people in their local communities and carrying out terror attacks in European capitals. Provided that European officials will rely on the Turks to protect them from this monster, it would be wise to dial down the populist rhetoric and stay on good terms with Turkey.

At the same time, Turkey's improving relations with China and the Russian Federation should be considered an opportunity for the European Union. As the world changes, European leaders must change their traditional positions and focus on building a stronger relationship with the Turks – which is the only way for the old continent to overcome its current existential crisis.

Finally, it is time for Europe to stop supporting violent opposition against Turkey's democratically elected government. The unwillingness of European governments to extradite known terrorists, including members of armed groups that the European Union itself considers terrorist organizations, to Turkey raises questions about Europe's commitment to Turkish national security and, by extension, Turkey's friendship.

As Turkish and European leaders meet in Varna, what the Turks expect from European officials is that they make rational and interest-driven decisions on political, economic and security cooperation. Whether Europe's leaders will come to their senses, however, remains to be seen.

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