Europe's new Turkey moment: Luxembourg 1997 or Helsinki 1999

Ankara has gotten ever closer to Moscow with which it cannot at the end of the day have a sustainable commonality of interests. Absent the option of going it alone, because the capacity is not there, mending fences with a reconstructed Europe is worth thinking about.

President Emmanuel Macron of France spoke at length with the Economist magazine about a month ago just when Turkey’s imaginatively named operation Peace Spring was underway. The President, as is his wont, was articulate, thoughtful, strategic and yes spoke as an impatient European sovereigntist hurrying to describe a threatening world to complacent partners. His impatience is directed at the members of the European Union who, in the comfort of business as usual and still counting on American security protection that was in diminishing supply even before Donald Trumps’ ascent to the Presidency are unwilling to take radical steps to change the ways of the Union. The headlines caught his harsh comment about NATO, that the organization was suffering from “brain death”, which in turn generated quite a backlash in other European countries, notably Germany, but there was much more to the comments and opinions of the French President. 

Macron is mostly right in his analyses except perhaps in his zeal to “read” Russia, as former French ambassador in Damascus Michel Duclos suggests, through a business-like vision and through exclusively rational(ist) calculations. For Macron, the layout of the world power balance is changing and is doing so rapidly. He is concerned that Europe will be left behind to protect its own interests in a world dominated by an ascending China and a relatively less strong but still formidable United States that is retrenching from long held commitments. The degree to which the United States will become unilateralist or will engage with Europe may vary based on the character and disposition of the President but the direction for Macron is certain. Under these circumstances the imperative for Europe is to make sure it can have its own defense capabilities and can compete in the new technological jungle.

In sum, for Macron, “firstly, Europe is gradually losing track of its history; secondly, a change in American strategy is taking place; thirdly, the rebalancing of the world goes hand in hand with the rise—over the last 15 years—of China as a power, which creates the risk of bipolarization and clearly marginalizes Europe. And add to the risk of a United States/China “G2” the re-emergence of authoritarian powers on the fringes of Europe, which also weakens us very significantly. This re-emergence of authoritarian powers, essentially Turkey and Russia, which are the two main players in our neighborhood policy, and the consequences of the Arab Spring, creates a kind of turmoil.”

The questions Macron raises in that interview and the suggestions he is making are critical for Europe’s strategic future and its economic ranking in the world. It is a pity that the substance of his comments and the depth of his thinking were sacrificed at the altar of his own unilateralism, the radically different optic of a Poland or the Baltic states vis a vis Russia and the Europeans’ knee-jerk reaction to suggestions that come from a French President. From a Turkish perspective, his stance on Turkey’s position in the Western alliance is at best ambiguous. He comments that Turkey’s unilateral decision to launch a military operation in Syria as much as the US withdrawal and Trump’s acquiescence to the Turkish move are proof perfect that NATO is braindead. But then although he spends a lot of time on both the USA and Russia, until he is prompted at the very end of the interview Macron does not reflect much on Turkey except in passing. 

Answering the last question of his interviewers concerning whether or not Turkey belongs in NATO, Macron answers “I couldn’t say.” In the full answer he defends his position to keep Russia in the Council of Europe “because the Council of Europe involves obligations.” NATO does not. But it is “in our interest to try to keep Turkey within the framework, and in a responsible mindset, but that also means that given the way NATO operates today, NATO’s ultimate guarantee must be clear with regards to Turkey.” The striking aspect of this answer in the context of the entire interview is as follows: Russia and Turkey are both identified as emerging authoritarian regimes in Europe’s periphery but only one deserves a thorough analysis and a strategy of management which to some looks like appeasement. Whatever term one wishes to use for Macron’s analysis, prognosis and solutions for Russia they are well thought out, consistent with his assumptions and leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that Russia is a European country. Turkey is spared that generosity.

That relations between the European Union and Turkey are at a breaking point is undeniable. The accession process has been in a deep coma for years. The Turkish government occasionally repeats that membership in the EU is a strategic goal but shows no interest in fulfilling the Union’s political criteria from which the country has regressed considerably. The level of trust between the parties is close to non-existent and the intense dislike if not disdain of the parties for one another quite striking. The political skirmishes and mutual verbal abuses of the last few years have left their scar. Granted that neither the EU nor Turkey are in the conditions of 2004. Yet this is precisely the moment when these relations will have to be thought out more carefully.

Turkey is revisiting its 1945 moment. Its rulers today are not committed Westernizers and a crisis-ridden West arguably looks less attractive to them than before. Yet 60% of the Turkish population still favors a membership that only 23% believe will ever happen. Politically the democratic energies of the population were in full display during the municipal elections of 2019.

As another Frenchmen, former EU ambassador in Ankara Marc Pierini argues, “Beyond populist tricks, Turkey’s nationalist elites readily theorize that the post–World War II and post–Cold War order is not suitable for an emerging power like Turkey.” Ankara has gotten ever closer to Moscow with which it cannot at the end of the day have a sustainable commonality of interests. Absent the option of going it alone, because the capacity is not there, mending fences with a reconstructed Europe is worth thinking about.

In that sense Europe also is revisiting a past moment. Whether that will be Luxembourg 1997 when Turkey’s eligibility for membership was rejected or Helsinki 1999 when she was given candidate status remains to be seen. The conditions that Macron describes in the world and the question of Islam(ism) that he did not talk about necessitate an engagement with Turkey. This is a hard if not a thankless one given the current political configuration but nothing lasts eternal. The Turkish dossier is not and should not be treated as less important than the Russian one. In fact, they are in more ways than one very similar.

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