Increasingly self-confident: Erdoğan supporters after the coup attempt in July 2016.
Turkey has been aspiring to become a member of the European Union for over half a century. Accession talks started in 2005 after Turkey had implemented impressive domestic reforms. The momentum was lost fast, however, because Turkey became a leading emerging market, and national self-confidence grew accordingly.
Turkey’s assessment of Europe became more sceptical. Today, the big role model is hounded by its own crises. Turkey considers itself to be a regional power of global relevance. The west is no longer its only partner.
Syria’s civil war has changed Turkey’s outlook even more. Three issues matter: state failure in the Middle East, Islamist terrorism and the mass flight of war victims to Europe. All three issues have a bearing on Europe’s security and cohesion.
The wars in Iraq and Syria have worsened old ethnic and religious divides, and they have created new ones. Kurdish forces are evidently the most effective opponents of the terror militia ISIS, and they are taking advantage of the current setting to achieve the autonomy they have been wanting for centuries. The stance of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards the increasingly assertive Kurdish community has therefore become confrontational again, even though he himself had started peace talks with the Kurdish militia PKK in 2012.
Moreover, Turkey intervened in Syria in order to block the advances made by the YPG, the militia of Syrian Kurds. Erdogan’s government did not even shy away from cooperating with ISIS in this context. Today, Turkey is at war with the Kurds, both at home and in the neighbouring country. Ankara’s interventions in Syria and Iraq are geared to making sure that Turkey has a say in the Middle East’s future order. Teaming up with Russia serves this purpose too.
In this context, the country has become more strategically important because of the refugee flow to Europe. The deal Turkey struck with the EU means that Ankara now holds the keys to protecting Europe’s external borders. The EU has indicated it will lift visa requirements in return, provided that Turkey reforms its anti-terrorism laws amongst others. This, however, is unlikely to happen, given that Turkey is being rocked by several violent conflicts.
The war with the PKK has been reignited. At the same time, Islamist bombs are exploding because, put under international pressure, Turkey suspended its support for ISIS. Erdogan’s rule has been becoming more authoritarian for years, and since the coup attempt in July, he has become more overtly repressive and is tightening his grip on all state institutions. Turkey itself has become a crisis country.
Turkish-European relations have always been uneasy, and the sense of alienation is now growing. Nobody says so, but none of the parties involved still believes in Turkey becoming an EU member. There are ever more recriminations. While European leaders use diplomatic language fearing that the refugee deal may fail, Erdogan is allowing things to escalate.
The big question now is which side will first declare the accession talks to have failed. For several reasons, such a declaration is risky for Europe: migration would increase after the collapse of the refugee deal, and Turkey would become closer aligned to Russia. Finding solutions for Syria would become even more difficult.
Turkey has a lot to lose too. The EU is by far its most important partner in trade. The years of strong growth are over. Investors are shying away from Turkey because of security concerns, and tourists are opting for safer destinations.
Erdogan would like the EU to declare the end of the accession talks. It would allow him to blame Europe. The EU must not do him this favour, but it must prepare for the failure of the refugee deal.
Nassir Djafari is a free-lance author.