The Marriage of Turkey and the EU

Turkey and the European Union aren’t doomed to separate. But their relationship needs serious couples therapy lest they be locked into a loveless marriage of convenience — or worse, a messy divorce. And as with any marital intervention, successful reconciliation depends not only on a good-faith effort by the couple, but also on the capacity and legitimacy of their mediator.

When a relationship is in turmoil, it sometimes helps to recall what brought the couple together in the first place.

Turkey and the EU officially began their courtship in 1959, shortly after the nations of Western Europe formed what’s now the EU from the ashes of two devastating world wars. For Turks, EU-accession promised economic opportunities in Europe to complement its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For Europeans, bringing Turkey into the EU promised a stronger buffer against common threats and a much-needed supply of labor. Yes, Turkey and the EU were never soulmates, but neither was their union a sham marriage.

The attraction that brought Turkey and the EU together those many decades ago remains magnetic to this day, even as Turkey’s flirtation with Iran and Russia shows signs of blossoming into romance. Turkey still depends on the EU’s steady demand for Turkish labor and manufactured goods to draw hard currency capital into the Turkish economy. And the EU remains dependent on Turkey to hold back a tide of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who would flow into Western Europe but for Turkey’s commitment to providing aid and sanctuary within its borders.

At the same time, an objective assessment of what troubles the Turkey-EU relationship would be incomplete without acknowledging the genuine cleavages that strain relations. History illustrates a fundamental dichotomy between Turkey and the EU, and understanding that dynamic is key to unlocking their hearts for one another.

Turkey owes much of its economic growth since 2002 to the policies of its strongman leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Yet Erdoğan’s leadership has come at the cost of Turkey’s fidelity to Western principles. The Turkish president’s ruthless authoritarianism and purported corruption run counter to the values that underpin European integration. And more alarmingly, Erdoğan has proven himself a reluctant democrat with a penchant for intimidating critics and jailing opponents — all in the name of the national interest, which is increasingly indistinguishable from his own.

On the other hand, the EU, now sixty years-old, has seen its attractiveness wane. Nationalism and economic protectionism have metastasized in Europe, giving rise to Brexit and fueling the assent of far right politicians across the continent. European integration gave birth to more than a half century of peace and prosperity. Yet, in the eyes of many European voters, the EU is now a barren shadow of its former self.

The United States can — and should — mediate the reconciliation of Turkey and the EU. America’s interests in the wellbeing of the Turkey-EU relationship are genuine if not benevolent. And we alone have the capacity to bring the parties together for constructive dialogue. America’s ability to heal the rift between Turkey and the EU, however, requires our faithful adherence to our own vows.

In the aftermath of World War II, allies and adversaries alike laid wounded and prostrate amid the scorched earth and rubble. The United States, no stranger to the siren call of isolationism, faced a stark choice: retire from the ruined battlefield or rebuild it in our own image. Americans wisely chose the latter.

Today we face a similar choice: Recoil from global engagement or remain committed to spreading democracy, human rights, and the rule of law the world over. The outcome of that choice will impact billions of individuals, and it will tangibly shape the future of Turkey-EU relations.

A tumultuous world is worse off without American leadership. And that is why we must never shrink from our responsibility to embody the values upon which our nation was founded, and we must never give in to our base urges to retreat from the world stage.

Economic integration and military alliance are the forerunners of peace and prosperity in the twenty-first century. Without a steadfast commitment to mutual defense and shared responsibility, the world will quickly devolve into strife and conflict. For that reason, the United States must resist the urge to throw up barriers to trade and investment while disparaging the defense arrangements that have kept the West from spiraling into a third world war. We must likewise stand unflinchingly against authoritarianism and corruption, the twin progeny of nationalism and economic protectionism. Finally, we must come to terms with our own infatuation with corrosive policies that tarnish our reputation and legitimacy for world leadership. If we are to help others get their houses in order, we must begin with our own.

The United States is at its best when it is fighting for the values we hold dear. We have been — and can be again — a powerful force for good in the world. We should embrace this calling. Rekindling the flame that draws Turkey and the EU inextricably together would be a good place to start.

Scott A. Olson is a former congressional staffer who worked for the U.S. Department of State in Ankara, Turkey, from 2012–2014. He is a political partner with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.




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We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

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