Turkey is Europe’s other major puzzle

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The European Council has big problems to be dealt with this week, like Brexit and the EU budget. Yet among the other challenges of the Brussels summit, there is to review the bloc’s relationship with Turkey, which is close to breaking with no sign of replacing it.

This long and turbulent the association still needed creative diplomats on both sides. Over the past five years, however, just like Turkey’s relationship with the West as a whole, it is on the verge of collapse. European leaders tend to blame President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for this. Yet, while they rightly emphasize his autocratic tendencies, they also often overlook his episodic pragmatism. The EU, in fact, has given up its once prodigious influence in Turkey.

Turkey’s EU membership negotiations, launched with fanfare in 2005, were phased out shortly thereafter. This ended what for Turkey had been a transformative engine of democratic renewal and reform, helping to curb the military which has long been the final arbiter of Turkish politics.

The acrimonious collapse of a UN reunification plan in 2004 Cyprus, divided since 1974 between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, was part of the problem. More damagingly, France, Germany and others have continued to raise barriers to entry into the EU against Turkey, as they feel it is too big, too poor and – rarely reported but seen as read – too Muslim.

Instead of acting as a strategic anchor point, the EU has helped to untie Turkey from its Western moorings. In the face of growing anger across the Turkish political spectrum, the EU has been blowing hot and cold ever since, opportunistically warming up in Ankara, such as when it was in desperate need of help holding back the Syrian refugees heading to Europe in 2016.

It was realpolitik tawdry. But Brussels did not really follow through on the agenda it had set in the framework of the agreement on migration. He lobbied his own concerns while ignoring Ankara’s and was seen by Turkey as acting in bad faith. Ankara expected at least an upgrade of the customs union it concluded with the EU in 1995, as well as action on visa exemptions and regular dialogue. Now there isn’t even a dialogue of the deaf.

This is in part due to Mr Erdogan’s extensive purges. They followed the violent coup attempt of July 2016, carried out by his former Islamist allies in institutions such as the army and the security services. the repress is always used for stifle dissent and opposition to hamstrings.

After three terms as prime minister, Erdogan rose to the presidency and leapt to a man’s rule, undermining the independence of the judiciary, replacing the parliamentary regime with a toothless national assembly, removing the role of Prime Minister and purging his ruling neo-Islamist party of its rivals. This takeover made Turkey ineligible for EU membership.

Mr Erdogan seems to have concluded that the deployment of hard power abroad serves him better than aligning himself with the weakened soft power of, by his enlightenment, duplicate Europeans. Of Syria to Libya, he seems attached to neo-Ottoman irredentism. It marks out a great maritime claim on the Aegean Sea and Eastern mediterranean and its gas resources. And while the European Council deliberates in Brussels this week, Erdogan will be in Azerbaijan at a pan-Turkish meeting victory parade, after helping him to retake Armenian-controlled territory in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey is a difficult customer. It’s a NATO member but buys Russian air defense systems. He is a member of the G20, but welcomes Hamas. This difficulty is not solely due to Mr. Erdogan. As Hugh Pope and Nigar Goksel, Turkey’s veteran observers at the International Crisis Group, said an article this month: “Turkey has always done things in its own way: building bridges one moment, bridgeheads the next.” The EU was once Turkey’s most important bridge.

The EU still has levers. More than half of Turkey’s trade and investment is European. Turkey is in dire need of a strengthened customs union, the rules for which could help consolidate a failed rule of law. But the EU needs to be more attentive to other things Turkey might want.

After the UAE normalized relations with Israel this year, Turkey switched to repair a ten year old line with the Israelis – part, say diplomats, of his rivalry with UAE. Indeed, a senior Turkish official despises what he sees as Emirati objectives of supplanting Turkey in Western eyes. The UAE “is a smart but small country, and it needs to understand its limitations, trying to fill the void left by Turkey, which has always had good relations with Israel. the Muslim country for the west ”.

Mr Erdogan’s bluster and belligerence can hardly be ignored, but there are signs Turkey still wants to be this country. The EU and the West should explore and exploit all these signs.

david.gardner@ft.com

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