Turkey is at the forefront of changes sweeping the Arab world. Sandwiched between crisis-ridden Europe and a volatile Middle East, its strategic geography is vital to the geopolitical interests of the UK and the EU as a whole.
Yet the bilateral relationships could not be more different. Turkey-UK ties are scaling new heights in trade, political dialogue and military cooperation. They are experiencing a ‘golden age’, according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ties with the EU, conversely, are plagued by stagnation and indecision. A recent survey found that a mere 17 per cent of Turks support joining the EU, down from 78 per cent in 2004. Not one new negotiating ‘chapter,’ or policy area necessary for Turkey’s EU accession, has been opened in over two years.
Successive UK governments have rightly acknowledged the importance of engaging Turkey in its capacity as a reliable friend of the West. Most recently, Turkey has agreed to host a sophisticated NATO radar system to help neutralise the Iranian missile threat. Along with the US and Europe, its leadership called on Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad to step aside in favour of a transitional and inclusive government.
In contrast, this realisation of mutual advantage has not adequately permeated the corridors of Berlin, Brussels and Paris. Energy security is a good example. It is obvious that Turkey can assist Europe to access Caspian gas to reduce dependence on an increasingly fickle Russia. Americans would call this a ‘no-brainer’. Nonetheless, as the recent House of Commons report on Turkey noted, the broken relationship is ‘losing the EU influence over Turkey’s energy policy decisions.’
More broadly, Turkey is focussing more intensely on its partnerships with the Arab world at the expense of Europe. Turkey’s trade flows are shrinking with Europe but flourishing with its eastern neighbourhood. Turkish companies have secured almost US$20 billion worth of construction contracts in the Gulf Arab region alone. Turkish soap operas – the most visible projection of its ‘soft power’ – are immensely popular across the Middle East.
Notwithstanding Turkey’s fraying EU relations, it can ill-afford a rupture with its most important source of foreign investment, technology and corporate governance. Europe, after all, has inspired the institutional innovations that enabled Turkey to outperform the Arab countries politically and economically. Europe is governed, albeit imperfectly, by a set of norms, rules and democratic standards on which Turkey can erect sustainable economic growth and a stable political system.
To the east and south, on the other hand, Turkey is bereft of durable alliances. Not long ago, it enjoyed warm ties with Syria and Iran, defined by the much vaunted, but now defunct, ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy. Today, Turkey’s support for the Arab popular uprisings, alongside Europe and the US, has set it at odds with these neighbours and left it exposed to worsening security risks along its borders.
Geography, as much as shared strategic and economic interests, dictates that Europe and Turkey revive the moribund relationship. Brussels need look no further for ideas than the UK’s constructive approach with Turkey. Both parties have forged a realistic and multifaceted alliance, which is more relevant than ever amid the euro-crisis and the turbulence of the Middle East. However, the strengthening bilateral UK-Turkey relationship cannot compensate for the stalemate between Turkey and Europe as a whole. Progress should be restored quickly. There is precious little time to waste.