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Will Turkey and the EU see the bigger picture?

As the March 7 summit between the EU and Turkey approaches, most analyses are focusing on the so-called refugee deal hammered out between the two sides on November 29, 2015 writes Marc Pierini. After countless meetings and some acrimonious exchanges, more bickering will be heard in Brussels at next week’s gathering. But, as important as implementing the refugee agreement is, the bigger picture is worth recalling.

The refugee deal is a risky exercise, and implementation will take longer than both sides want, but it will happen despite all the tensions. Projects to foster education and jobs will take shape under the leadership of international NGOs and UN agencies and in coordination with Turkish authorities.

In this respect, the EU and Turkey could issue two critical joint messages at their March 7 summit. The first should be addressed to Syrian refugees in Turkey: “There is support and hope for you (through housing, healthcare, and job creation schemes) and for your children (through education, including in Arabic). This will sustain your lives and prepare your children for a better future when you return to Syria.”

The second joint message should be directed at Turkish organized crime networks, which pocketed an estimated €2 billion ($2.2 billion) in 2015 through refugee smuggling: “The authorities will not tolerate the fact that you substitute real legitimate economic activities with a mafia-type economy in which smuggling human beings is five or ten times more lucrative than licit undertakings.” Turkey should realize that this is a murderous vicious circle for its economy and that international cooperation is crucial.

Over and above the refugee crisis, however, relations between Turkey and the EU have reached a critical juncture for much broader reasons.

The Syrian civil war has become an international conflict and has the potential for more destabilization at the regional level. Turkey’s policy on Syria has been frozen by the Russian intervention that began in September 2015. Moscow, not Ankara, is implementing a no-fly zone with its best air-interdiction assets; Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure from power is far from certain; the regime is regaining ground in the Aleppo and Idlib provinces before it moves on to Deraa and Deir ez-Zour;the Syrian Kurdish movement has been propped up by Moscow and will therefore be a part, at least nominally, of a future Syrian settlement.

At the same time, Turkey has been unable to integrate strategic shifts on the political and military battlefield into its policymaking, essentially because Ankara’s stance of equating the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey serves domestic purposes. As a result, Turkey has been dragged into a situation in which it is now at odds with both Russia and the United States, which have both recognized the value of Kurdish fighters in the fight against the self-styled Islamic State.

In parallel, Turkey has not assumed any major role in the anti–Islamic State coalition despite multiple attacks by the group on Turkish territory. Whatever the motivations of such ambivalence, it results in unnecessary tensions with both the United States and the EU.

In Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, the resumption of a violent cycle of PKK terrorist attacks and governmental repression has plunged the region into a quasi civil war. The immediate consequence is a wave of internally displaced people in Turkey, with some 355,000 Kurds moving westward since December 2015. The human suffering is staggering, and the wounds will be long in healing. International appeals to de-escalate tensions keep coming.

Some in Ankara assume that the conflict in the southeast will help the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) rally nationalist votes. Between the two Turkish general elections in June and November 2015, 4.8 million voters shifted their preferences to the AKP after the party pledged to boost the country’s security. Ultimately, the conflict could allow the AKP to push the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) below the 10 percent threshold needed to enter the parliament. In turn, both moves could eventually help the AKP achieve a two-thirds majority in the legislature, enabling the government to change the constitution without the need for a referendum.

Despite these electoral calculations, a serious attempt by Ankara and the Kurds to return to the negotiating table is called for. But will this happen, and will the Kurds entertain such a proposition?

The catastrophic degradation of the rule of law and freedom of expression since mid-2013 is another major issue in Turkey and for the EU.Today, the situation is worse than in 2005 when Turkey’s EU accession negotiations were launched. Even if EU leaders have decided to be mute about it, the bare truth is that Turkey no longer sufficiently meets the political Copenhagen criteria for EU membership. The recent statement challenging the validity of a constitutional court decision does unfathomable damage to the country’s international standing.

The issue here is whether European leaders gain anything at all by sweeping the rule of law and fundamental EU values under the rug for the sake of a transactional relationship with Turkey on refugees. On the contrary, the EU is shooting itself in the foot multiple times: such action brings Turkish liberals close to despair; provides the Turkish leadership with a greater incentive to lambast even more opponents, rights defenders, and liberals; weakens the Turkish economy in the medium and long term (which, in turn, is bad for the EU); and damages the EU’s image worldwide.

All of the above is happening in a formally perfect democratic setup. The Turkish president was elected in August 2014 with 52 percent of the vote, and the governing party, which won 49 percent of the vote in the November 2015 election, has a comfortable majority of seats in the parliament. So, EU leaders would remark, this is what Turkish voters wanted.

On March 7, the political stunt will be for both sides to manage vastly diverging expectations. Europeans, Germans in particular, are obsessed with seeing the numbers of refugee arrivals go down immediately. But the price for making this happen—German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others continuing to publicly forget about fundamental issues in Turkey—is a mistaken strategy that will haunt the EU for decades. It’s high time for European leaders to grasp the bigger picture and act accordingly.

The Turkish leadership may see a historic opportunity to play hardball with a weakened Europe and attempt to weaken it further. This is exactly the strategy Russia is following. Such a short-term calculus based on domestic political considerations poses a massive risk for Turkey. The country’s economic, financial, and technological anchor remains Europe, and recent history has proved that Turkey has nowhere else to go in this respect. Will Ankara draw the right lessons? Or will biased analyses, religious considerations, and hubris push Turkey in a riskier and lonelier direction?

The much-needed reset in EU-Turkey relations should focus not only on a refugee bargain but also on much broader bases for cooperation: the rule of law and freedom of expression, the peace process with the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, and, above all, a political understanding of the two sides’ shared challenges and interests.

Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective. This article was first published by Judy Dempsye’s Strategic Europe, which is published under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. More information can be found at

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