Despite the almost complete deadlock in membership talks — 2011 marked one of the most disappointing years in terms of opened chapters of negotiation since the accession process started in 2005 — Turkey and EU countries have continued to engage in wide-ranging dialogue and bilateral and transatlantic cooperation on key issues.
In fact, the dichotomy between widening agreement on a host of global and regional priorities, from responses to the Arab Spring to Iran, and lack of progress towards EU membership, prompts a question: is the relationship between Turkey and the EU bound to be marked by a high degree of alignment but only limited convergence? The EU has been a critical factor in supporting turkey’s transformation in the past 15 years. But will it be remembered as the “enabler” of a process that has then taken a course of its own?
The obstacles to full convergence between Turkey and the EU, such as the convergence promised by full membership in the union, are not only those created by deeply-rooted prejudices among European publics, or the variously motivated reservations expressed by some EU members. At the root of the problem, there seem to be also different trajectories. EU leaders are the first to recognize the significant progress that Turkey has made in recent years, becoming a widely-praised success story of both economic and political development. Yet, what is celebrated among Turkish ruling elites as the emergence of “new Turkey” is the product of developments that have either been out of sync with EU trends or that the EU has helped trigger but have then taken a distinctly national course.
The country’s rapid economic ascent to one of the most vibrant among the top 20 world economies — it is currently ranked 16th and aspires to move further up — is in stark contrast with the low-growth tendencies of most EU countries over the same period. Turkey’s rise has taken place at a time of spreading declinist fears among European and transatlantic societies. As Europe has fallen victim to increasing introversion and introspection as a response to real or perceived weakness, Turkey has opened itself to the world, displaying ever greater confidence. Turkey has based much of its recent economic performance on deeper integration in the world markets — a path it has willingly pursued. In the process, its workforce has become more skilled and Turkish companies more competitive. Leaving behind an insular attitude that was widespread during the Cold War, Turkish businessmen and the government have come to look at the country’s many neighbors as markets to explore rather than rivals and competitors to hide from. One of the keys to Turkey’s development since the the reforms undertaken in the 1980s has been the transition, still in the making, from an import-substitution to an open economy model. Most European economies, meanwhile, have lost competitiveness, while developing a fearful attitude towards foreign economies and societies.
Multi-directional foreign policy engagement has complemented and supported the opening of Turkish markets and the country’s expanding regional economic projection. Turkey is widely credited with having become one of the most active regional actors in recent years, its initiatives being alternatively seen as greatly helpful or controversial by other players. Apparently, this outward-looking attitude has not been dented even by the intensifying challenges around Turkey. Turkey’s continuing optimism for regional cooperation, while the transformations in the Arab world shatter the balances upon which Ankara had based the country’s strategies in the Middle East in the 2000s, may look misplaced, but is for the same reason even more remarkable. The crisis in Syria, with its multiple security and humanitarian externalities, would have been more than enough for other countries to move from confidence to circumspection, resecuritizing relations with the region. Although painfully reminded of the costs of managing instability around its borders, Turkey has refrained so far from dismantling the dense network of relations it had built with its neighbors during much quieter times.
While affected more than others by the influx of refugees and forced migrants, Turkey has tried for now to keep in place the policies allowing mobility implemented in previous years. The EU might now be forced to change its approach to migration, perhaps becoming serious about implementing mobility partnerships with Southern Mediterranean countries as part of its new neighborhood policy. Turkey has accomplished much of that already, and without the pressure of events. While EU governments (and the publics with them) have grown concerned about the phenomenon of immigration over the past years, Turkey has lifted the visa requirements for a growing number of neighboring countries during the 2000s, seeing mobility as an opportunity for Arabs as well as Turks.
Turkey’s outward-looking attitude has interestingly co-existed, and has actually been supported, by a strategic as well as psychological shift by which Turkish society has increasingly seen itself at the core rather than at the periphery of larger trends and dynamics. The whole foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Developing Party during its decade of leadership can be summarized by the ambition “to put Turkey at the center,” while defining the Turkish national interest not in the narrow way of the past as the protection of the republic’s borders, but as the projection of Turkish influence across the area that used to be the Ottoman Empire, and beyond. As with other developments, this dynamic has highlighted the different trajectories of Turkey and the EU. While Turkey was allegedly finding a new balance in growing self-reliance, the EU ostensibly lost its center of gravity. Brussels gradually ceased to be the focus of European politics, Germany even more clearly emerged as the core economy yet hesitant leader, and European countries around the EU’s core pursued strategies of renationalization of their priorities while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on EU solidarity to evade their financial constraints.
Alignment as Convergence?
If the international debate in 2010, when Ankara defied U.S. and European allies on issues such as sanctions against Iran, was all about Turkey’s alleged “drift,” Turkey’s refound alignment with Western partners features prominently in this year’s discussions. Despite the breakdown in Turkish Israeli relations, the excitement is palpable in Washington about the role that Turkey can play in the context of the Arab Spring, helping a cash-strapped United States managing shared security and economic priorities. In the EU, the popularity of notions such as a EU-Turkey strategic dialogue has increased in the wake of the transformations in the Arab world. In the hope of reviving the relationship, European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle has proposed a new positive agenda with Turkey, mixing accession and strategic cooperation priorities.
There is no doubt that the changing international context has led to new alignments on a host of key issues. As was the case with the rest of the Western countries, Turkey was forced to choose between preserving its interests by defending a status quo that looked increasingly untenable or by supporting change. Not without contradictions and hesitations, both Turkey and EU countries seem to have chosen to support change as a way to promote more advanced regional solutions while continuing to protect their interests in the new context. On Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and — since the decision to host a part of the new NATO antimissile shield — Iran, the alignment between the United States, EU, and Turkey has been remarkable. Yet, a process of true convergence leading to a common re-evaluation of the benefits of Turkey’s full European integration remains impeded by various factors, thus being only one possibility among other outcomes. National dynamics and larger forces again play a role in creating multiple possible trajectories. The greatest challenge of all is the danger of Europe’s disintegration, a development that, almost by definition, would eliminate the possibility of convergence altogether.
While European countries struggle with the question of whether the European project has a future, an overwhelmed EU has lost any appetite for further enlargement, aside perhaps for the the Balkans. As far as Turkey is concerned, the depressing fact is that enlargement-related vetoes risk undermining even the prospects for a more limited strategic cooperation. The Republic of Cyprus’ recent opposition to Turkey’s involvement in EU discussions on sanctions against Syria — which France supported — is a clear example of negative spillovers. On a different level, Turkey’s absence from the debates about the future of the EU may negatively affect its future attitude towards a refounded EU. For their part, future economic developments may remind Turkey of its deep connections with the European economies, but this will not necessarily revive its interest in European integration. If the provisions currently passed at the EU level proved to be unable to solve the eurozone crisis, the collapse of the monetary union would disrupt financial markets and most likely undermine the critical flow of foreign capitals to Turkey, which for the most part come from EU countries. Turkey’s exports will also suffer from the recessionary outlook of some of its main trade partners in the EU. Coupled with the possible exacerbation of weaknesses of the Turkish economy — the current account deficit, unemployment, and a large informal economy — these trends are already expected to have a depressionary impact on Turkey’s currently record-high growth rates. It is not so clear, however, whether a less stellar economic performance will bring Turkey back to Europe, or will push it even further in the direction of greater engagement with non-European economies.
In fact, greater alignment with European countries and the United States on a host of foreign policy issues does not for now seem to have altered Turkey’s perception of its position among international actors. Turkey continues to see itself at the center and there is little sign of an imminent shift of perspective. Despite new challenges, Turkey displays confidence in what Western analysts have defined too hastily as the Turkish “model” and which Turkish representatives more modestly present as Turkey’s “inspiration.” In fact, the very notion of a distinctive Turkish model, combining progress and tradition, Islam and democracy, may reinforce the idea that Turkey is indeed a special case, which could be difficult to accommodate in the larger EU mold.
The accession process with the EU has undoubtedly played a critical role in Turkey’s recent transformation, creating incentives, guarantees, and benchmarks for change. However, the process of alignment with EU laws has remained incomplete, slowing down in most recent years. More broadly, the type of democracy that has emerged so far has alarmed a growing number about the weak culture of pluralism, and the alleged temptations of the new ruling elite to get rid of checks and balances. The ongoing attempt to overhaul the Constitution of 1982 dating back to military rule holds the promise to consolidate democracy and further affirm political freedoms and personal rights. But it remains unclear whether Turkey will emerge from this process, even if successful, as a liberal democracy. In fact, there might be at least some value in the view that the Muslim brotherhoods’ interest in the AKP and the Turkish model throughout the Arab world is due, among other things, to the majoritarian elements of Turkish democracy, which combines a multi-party system with a dominance of conservative forces, and openness and innovation with a culture that promotes traditional values. For sure, European democracies also vary widely one from the other, many of them having in fact seemingly moved away in recent years from a liberal model that is difficult to preserve under the pressures of globalization. But for now dynamics are such that convergence between Turkish and European democracy, as with convergence between their respective economic and international trajectories, is only one possibility among many other outcomes.
Far from suggesting that Turkey is the perennial “other,” this means accepting that Turkey is, above all, Turkey. The notion that Turkey, as all nations, has a set of priorities, interests, and orientations of its own may be unpalatable to Europeans and Americans, who have traditionally tried to over-impose their preferences on the country. But future cooperation, including perhaps convergence, will depend precisely on the acknowledgment and acceptance of such reality.
About the Author
Emiliano Alessandri is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund., where he develops GMF’s work on the Mediterranean, Turkish, and wider-Atlantic security issues. Dr. Alessandri is an associate fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) of Rome and serves on the board of the IAI-based The International Spectator. Dr. Alessandri was educated at the University of Bologna, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University, and Princeton University, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.