The revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have brought home to many people that Turkey has become a force to be reckoned with in this region. Turkey enjoys lots of credibility in the Arab world. It has burgeoning trade ties and solid political relations with many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. As the EU scrambles to revamp its own neighbourhood policy, it would do well to work closely with Turkey. Turkey would also gain. Sadly, there is little evidence of such co-operation to date.
Asked at a recent Aspen roundtable in Istanbul whether the EU and Turkey were co-ordinating their responses to the revolts in the Arab world, Ali Babacan, a veteran minister in the Erdogan government, said : "We work a lot with the Americans, like we do on Afghanistan, but not with Europe." The main reason, he said, was that his country’s plan to join the EU was going nowhere.
The EU - in acknowledgement of Turkey’s growing international clout - has offered Ankara a foreign policy dialogue outside the accession process. But the dialogue has yet to start in earnest. Most of the interaction between Turkey and the EU still revolves around a largely blocked accession process. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu - at the same Aspen roundtable - added a second reason why foreign policy co-ordination had been slow to get off the ground. Turkey, he explained, did not bother to work with the EU because the EU’s own neighbourhood policy was weak and inconsistent.
Davutoglu and his colleagues in Ankara should reconsider. The uprisings in the Arab world are spurring the EU to rethink its neighbourhood policy (see Charles Grant, ’A new neighbourhood policy for the EU’). They could also wreck Turkey’s ’zero problems with the neighbours’ approach to its region - which is already in trouble after Turkish attempts to mediate in several regional conflicts failed and Ankara fell out with Israel.
Although today’s Turkey likes to see itself as a regional leader, its influence in the Middle East, and even more so in the Maghreb, is still rather fresh and fragile. During the Cold War years, Turkey was largely isolated in its neighbourhood. It clung to its NATO allies while viewing its southern neighbours as sources of Islamic extremism, Kurdish separatism and other potential security threats.
In the 1990s, there were initial attempts to make up with old adversaries like Syria and Iran. These accelerated after the AK party took power in 2002. Turkish mediation efforts, for example between Israel and Syria or Iran and the West, have produced no tangible results. But over the last decade, Turkey has created a web of political, economic and civil society ties with almost all of the countries around its borders. Turkey has scrapped visa requirements for Syrians, Tunisians, Lebanese, Libyans and Moroccans ; it is building a free trade zone with various Mediterranean countries ; and Turkish traders, builders and bankers are active across the region, as are Turkish business federations and other non-governmental organisations.
Bizarrely, as Kemal Kirisci points out in a recent GMF-IAI paper (’Turkey : Reluctant Mediteranean power’), Turkey’s neighbourhood policy has moved from its security-obsessed origins to good old-fashioned European functionalism – the belief that economic integration and lots of low-level exchanges will bring political understanding and stability. The EU’s Mediterranean policy has also involved scrapping trade barriers. And it talks about nice things such as democracy and good governance. But in reality it has taken a security-first approach, focusing mainly on fighting terrorism, fundamentalism, and illegal migration.
The revolts in Northern Africa have already forced the EU to think harder about how to help introduce democracy and create economic opportunities in its southern neighbours. Turkey, meanwhile, will probably move security back to the heart of its neighbourhood policy, especially if political upheaval spreads closer to its borders, and if some of the new regimes in the region start quarrelling with Israel or Iran.
Both Turkey and the EU will grapple with finding a balance between the objectives of stability and democracy in their neighbourhood policies. Unlike the EU, Turkey has not in the past claimed to be promoting democracy in the Arab world. Erdogan has managed to gain the admiration of the Arab street - partly through supporting Palestinians and criticising Israel - while at the same time snuggling up to some of the region’s most autocratic rulers, including Colonel Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan’s initial reaction to the Arab uprisings was equally inconsistent. He called on Egypt’s President Mubarak to leave and he welcomed Tunisia’s move to democracy. But in the case of Libya, Erdogan has been holding out against sanctions and any kind of military intervention. And he has never criticised Ahmadinejad for rigging elections or Assad for clamping down on his opponents. In the new political environment, Turkey’s standing in the Arab world will suffer unless its approach to democracy promotion becomes more coherent and consistent.
Turkey’s ruling AK party, which itself has some roots in outlawed Islamist forces, has strengthened ties with various Islamist movements in its neighbourhood, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The AKP could help turn such movements into electable political parties. However, at a time when the Erdogan government is accused of moving towards religious conservatism and political authoritarianism, collaboration with Islamists elsewhere would scare people inside Turkey and outside. They would ask whether Turkey was trying to promote democracy or Islamism in its foreign relations. Such suspicions would be mitigated if the AKP’s ties with Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere were part of an EU-supported democratisation and institution-building programme.
The EU would also benefit greatly from working with Turkey - and not only because Turkey brings valuable regional links and expertise to the table. Having lost much of its kudos by focusing aid and political attentions on various autocratic regimes, the EU could regain soft power by working with Turkey - a country that still enjoys much esteem across the Arab world.
The revamp of respective neighbourhood policies could be an opportunity for the EU and Turkey to get serious about foreign policy co-ordination and thus improve their strained bilateral ties. Co-operation should go beyond political dialogue between Brussels and Ankara and involve business federations, foundations and other non-governmental organisations that can help Mediterranean countries become more stable and prosperous. Without this kind of co-ordination, rivalries and misunderstandings between the EU and Turkey could further undermine their bilateral relationship and the effectiveness of their respective neighbourhood policies.