The EU is Turkey’s largest trading partner, accounting for 45 percent of exports and 38 percent of imports. German tourists are still the second-largest contingent after Russians, despite security concerns and the political disharmony between the two countries.
The nation on the Bosporus matters to Europe too; economically as well as geopolitically. It is the EU’s fourth-largest export and fifth-largest import market; 5 percent of global oil production reaches Europe from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Middle East after transiting through Turkey; Russian and Ukrainian grain is transported through Turkey to reach its destinations in Europe; and Turkey also constitutes the easternmost flank of NATO, and hence the continent’s stronghold against the civil wars of the region. Turkey has also received three million Syrian refugees and is trying to integrate them without complaint, and it has all but closed off its borders in return for $3 billion of aid from the EU. This deal may be cynical, but it stemmed the constant flow of refugees through the Balkans route.
The rhetoric between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his European counterparts has ratcheted up significantly since the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Europe justifiably criticizes the human rights situation and NGOs get particularly hot under the collar about the arrests in civil society and the detainment of journalists. The German government considers it interference when Erdogan’s AK Party wants to stage election rallies to address Turkish citizens and dual nationals on German soil (people of Turkish and Kurdish descent form Germany’s largest ethnic minority). The Kurds and other Turkish opposition organizations demonstrate in European cities, but police fear clashes with pro-Erdogan forces and have no interest in Turkish domestic issues being fought out in their streets.
Understandable as these gripes may be, there is another side to the issue. Turkey’s neighborhood is geopolitically volatile. The country needs to balance between war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as getting along with Iran and Russia. The Kurdish issue keeps the leaders of the region awake at night. Erdogan in particular fears for the territorial integrity of his country in the light of Kurdish nationalism and the might of Kurdish militia in Syria and Iraq. He opposed the Western training and armament of Peshmerga Kurds vociferously.
European leaders find it difficult to deal with strongmen who do not share their view of how democracies should work. They object to Erdogan’s rhetoric but, then again, this seems to be the time of the strongman. There is Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Hungarian President Victor Orban, who all display similar traits. Erdogan finds it difficult to deal with do-gooding European leaders. They are who they are precisely because Western democracies necessitate listening to a cacophony of voices. Both sides have their issues: Europe has to grapple with rising populism and a widespread fear of refugees, and Erdogan cannot relocate his country into a more benign neighborhood. Geography and history have linked Turkey and Europe for centuries and the relationship has been, more often than not, quite difficult. What is therefore needed is a more pragmatic approach on both sides.
Geography and history have put the two in opposition for centuries and the dialogue has been, more often than not, quite difficult — a more pragmatic approach is now needed by the leadership on both sides.
Recent developments may indicate that the dialogue is getting somewhat more constructive: Two weeks ago Erdogan visited French President Emmanuel Macron, who made it clear that he saw no possibility for Turkey to join the EU under current circumstances, but that Europe and Turkey needed to find a way to set their relationship on a more constructive level. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel echoed this sentiment when he met his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on the same day.
There are many issues where the European and Turkish leaders will never see eye to eye. Both sides have justified grudges: Europeans bemoan the human rights situation in Turkey and the Turkish government feels underappreciated for welcoming and integrating so many refugees. The Europeans fear populists and the Turks have to live in a difficult neighborhood. All of this is a fact, but they are neighbors. Turkey needs Europe’s markets, tourists and investment and Europe needs a reliable and stable neighbor on its easternmost front.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources