Geopolitical Dilemma

Realpolitik Must Guide Europe's Turkey Policy

Turkey’s President Erdogan waits for the start of a meeting with EU Council President Tusk in Brussels
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had an uneasy relationship with Europe.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe is now confronted with the fact that a possible new strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member, will drive a further wedge into the tense relationship between Europe and Turkey.

  • Facts


    • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a widespread crackdown in Turkey in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt.
    • Turkey is a member of the NATO military alliance and has applied to join the European Union.
    • Other countries with strategic interests in Turkey include Middle East states, Russia and the United States.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repressive actions after the failed putsch in Turkey are difficult for Europe to accept. No question about it, his policies are irreconcilable with our democratic and constitutional values. But does a reciprocal relationship of geopolitical dependency allow a clear European response?

Because of the need to minimize security risks, Europe will have little alternative to continuing to work with Turkey. That’s bad news for the European value system. Equally bad is that little hope exists at the moment that anything will change for the better in Turkey’s domestic politics.

Let’s not forget: Europe reacted too late. It let the issue of Turkey’s admission to the European Union remain uncertain for too long, and that took away further incentives toward democratization and harmonization with E.U. laws.

The autocratic reorganization of Turkey has been going on for a long time – but no one in Europe wanted to acknowledge that fact. The choice was made for Europe to remain silent on limitations to press freedom, judicial proceedings against journalists and the Kurdish issue.

The exact opposite would have been appropriate: The European Union should have redoubled its efforts and become much more attentive to Turkey via clear criticism of the country’s democratic regression as well as with a view to the credibility of its E.U. admission efforts.

Europe is now confronted with the fact that a possible new strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member, will drive a further wedge into the tense relationship between Europe and Turkey. The shift toward Moscow is certainly also a source of worry to NATO and the United States.

Geopolitical realities unfortunately speak a different language to our utopian fantasies.

It is now a matter of damage control and a far-sightedness that takes into account the geopolitical interests of Europe and Turkey. It’s imperative to weigh the geopolitical interests of Europe against a justified criticism of current conditions in Turkey.

Turkey is considered to be a key country and bridge between Europe and Asia. At the same time, the nation is Europe’s bulwark against the conflict zones of the Middle East. Turkey’s large population, and economic and military strength make it an important partner in both trade and security on NATO’s southern flank.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has been directly involved as an adjoining country, and it has taken in some 2.7 million Syrian refugees. In accordance with the refugee agreement between the European Union and Turkey, the country has made an important contribution to stopping the influx of migrants to Europe. Along with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey is among the last countries in the region with the power to shape events.

Nor should Turkey’s role regarding energy strategy be forgotten. It is Europe’s transit country for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, and soon from Iran and Iraq as well. Europe needs Turkey to deliver energy and allow the continent to reduce its dependence on Russia in terms of energy logistics.

So there are good reasons why Europeans within the E.U. bloc and NATO are well-advised to keep cool heads and neither slam the door shut on Ankara nor allow Europe to be provoked or pressured by Mr. Erdogan. It’s smarter to maintain dialogue, however difficult at the moment, and to have a clear policy.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, is correct in raising the question about what further influence the E.U. bloc would have if it ceased negotiations and definitively denied Turkey a European perspective. It would only strengthen Mr. Erdogan and harm Turkish civil society.

Policy toward Turkey requires both patience and a realistic appraisal of Europe’s own possibilities and goals. Europe needs Turkey, but Turkey also needs Europe. The country is not as unassailable as Mr. Erdogan is fond of claiming. Its political power is largely based on what is up to now a positive economic situation with extensive investment from the E.U. states and access to the E.U. single market.

Mr. Erdogan, who with his repressive policies is destroying his own economic miracle, will not long be able to risk sawing at the branch on which he perches. Ultimately, he will have to offer his people more than simple neo-Ottoman rhetoric. Here Europe can be stronger than it imagines.

At the same time, Europe must make clear that for the foreseeable future, E.U. admission is off the agenda. The bloc should instead develop credible and pragmatic alternatives to what have been its enlargement policies up to now.

For example, an associate membership would again offer Turkey a medium-term economic and constitutional perspective that could be expected to induce Ankara to return to democratic principles. Inclusion in the negotiations for the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a strengthening of the European-Turkish customs union and visa-free travel are prospects that Turkey’s leadership will over the long term be unable to disregard or to reach through a course of confrontation.

Especially after the recent terrorist attacks, consideration must be given to the security needs of the NATO member and ultimately of the entire military alliance. It’s in Europe’s interest to have a strong ally on its southeastern flank as a bulwark to the hotspots of the Middle East.

Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian behavior doesn’t change the fact that in this case, geopolitical realities unfortunately speak a different language to our utopian fantasies.


To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!