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Jul 23, 2012 | 10:16 GMT

7 mins read

Turkey and Europe's Evolving Relationship

Turkey and Europe's Evolving Relationship
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Turkish and EU interests in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean often either collide with or complement each other, depending on the geopolitical environment. But both Turkey and the European Union presently are undergoing significant regional transformations. With Europe fracturing and Turkey on the rise, a recalibration of Turkish-European relations can be expected. For example, the political drama surrounding Turkey's bid to join the European Union will subside as Ankara devotes more of its attention to the Islamic world. Ultimately, deeper economic ties and greater coordination in energy security and foreign policy will define Turkey's evolving relationship with the Continent for years to come.


The expansion of Western Europe, which was marked by the expansion of the European Union, is grinding to a halt. European structures are faltering as the Continent struggles through a deep economic crisis marked by weak growth prospects and a grim demographic outlook. Meanwhile, Turkey is continuing its nascent expansion and is re-evaluating its geopolitical position at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Its economy and its population are growing. Indeed, Turkey is expected to have a larger population than any of the European powers by 2025.

Turkish and Western European interests have collided several times throughout history as the Turks' sphere of influence overlapped with that of European powers in Central Europe, as well as with France and Spain. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Turkish influence abroad shriveled and the Turks lost nearly all of their European territory.

Western Europe and Russia filled the vacuum in the Balkans and, to some extent, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish-European tensions have historically run high in both regions — the present included. Given geography and national imperatives, the interests of Turkey and Europe will continue to overlap there.

Turkey's EU Bid

Cyprus and Greece, which form the southeastern tip of the European Union, have both sought to block Turkish accession to the European Union. Further north and west, France and Germany remain skeptical about integrating Turkey, a country of 75 million, fearing an erosion of their own power. Cultural and religious differences also fuel Western fears of deeper links with Turkey. 


But tensions tied to Turkey's EU bid are becoming increasingly irrelevant. For former Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, being European meant embracing modernity and secularism. A relationship with Europe was seen as cementing a somewhat Western identity. Now, the task of shaping Turkish identity is in the hands of an Islamist-rooted government, which believes that being European requires betrayal of Islamic principles.

When Turks debate relations with Europeans, the division is not over instrumental geopolitical lines, but rather internal political principles. The ruling party undermined the secularist argument for European modernity by proclaiming the need for military subservience to civilian rule if Turkey were to be considered a truly modern power. The ruling power is now in a relatively comfortable position compared to its secularist rivals, and the military is now on the defensive. While Turkey will always maintain a cultural foothold in the West, it no longer needs formal membership in Western institutions like the European Union to define itself.



Areas of Cooperation

Economic relations between Turkey and Europe have strengthened over the past decades, especially since the signing of an EU-Turkey customs agreement in 1996. Currently, approximately half of Turkish exports go to Europe. Germany is Turkey's largest export market, and five out of Turkey's top ten export markets are European countries. Closer ties with Europe have allowed the country to produce more value-added goods. A decade ago, the country's most important exports were textiles, but in recent years, the export of vehicles and vehicle parts, machinery and electronic equipment has increased. 



Due to these ties, the economic downturn in Europe will negatively impact Turkey in the short run. More than half of all tourists visiting Turkey are European. Tourism accounts for around 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product and is important for Turkish social stability since the sector provides more than 7 percent of the country's jobs. More than 70 percent of foreign direct investment flowing into Turkey comes from Europe. Still, despite a short-term negative outlook, the Turkish economy is expected to strengthen especially as its population continues to grow.

For Europe, Turkey is important as a future export market. Europe's economic crisis and poor demographic outlook are weakening domestic consumption. To return to growth, the Continent must find new export markets. In the longer run, it must attract immigrants. Turkey offers both. 



Europe and Turkey also share common energy diversification needs. Europe's energy resources are limited to the North Sea and are decreasing, making the Continent largely dependent on Russia for energy. This gives Moscow leverage, which Europe would like to reduce. Turkey has a similar problem: Its dependence on Russia limits its foreign policy options in the Balkans and Central Asia, which are also in Russia's sphere of influence. 



Thus, the European Union and Turkey plan to cooperate on the transit of natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Europe needs Turkey because of its geographic location and its role as an energy hub, and the pipeline must pass through Turkish territory. Ankara is happy to have Europe involved to provide money and expertise. Jointly, the two regions also have more power to resist Russian attempts to hamper such diversification efforts. 



Immigration and Foreign Policy

Immigration is a third area that binds Europe and Turkey together. Turkish migrants were once welcomed in Europe extensively, especially in Germany, where Turks provided a much-needed labor force in the 1960s. An estimated 5.5 million Turkish nationals currently live in the European Union, accounting for one quarter of the non-EU nationals living in there. Turkish citizens constitute the largest group of foreigners residing in the bloc. 



EU countries fear that a liberalization of the visa regime would produce a massive inflow of Turkish workers into Western Europe. Immigrants would change the societal structure in Western Europe, making this a highly sensitive issue. Europeans also fear that Turkey's lax border controls would make it the European point of entry for illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Talks over liberalization of the visa regime will set the tone for relations between Turkey and European countries in the upcoming years. Despite its fears, Europe's poor demographic outlook requires it to welcome immigrants to beef up its work force to bolster its social security system. Visa negotiations are already under way, and an agreement is expected within the next three years.



Turkey and Europe will likely coordinate more closely on foreign policy in the Islamic world. Europe is becoming too distracted with problems at home to invest much energy toward its former colonial spheres of influence. Turkey, on the other hand, is trying to strengthen relations with governments across the Islamic world at a time when political Islam is battling secularist regimes. Turkey is still the most Western-oriented Muslim country, especially by virtue of its NATO membership. Turkey is positioning itself to become the primary interlocutor between the West and the Muslim world. Europe, along with the United States, supports a strengthened Turkish influence in the Middle East in hopes that Ankara can balance other regional powers such as Iran. 


Opportunities for Bilateral Ties

The rise of Turkey and weakening of Western Europe will become most apparent in the Balkans, Europe's southeastern borderlands. Despite relatively strong Russian influence in the region, especially on energy issues, and historical tensions between Ankara and some Balkan countries, proximity and Turkish economic strength will naturally lead to stronger regional ties. This will be especially true in countries with large Muslim populations such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Historical tensions will not deter strengthened economic ties with Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, the biggest Balkan economies, especially through business relations. 



Similarly, a better relationship between Turkey and France, whose bilateral relationship was especially strained over the past years, would be a bellwether of such developments. The French-Turkish relationship reached a low during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. Since the election of Francois Hollande, both France and Turkey have stated an intention to open a new chapter in their bilateral relationship. On foreign policy issues in the Middle East, the two broadly agree. Deeper economic ties, defense industry contracts or involvement of French energy companies in the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia to deter Russian firms would further indicate warming relations.


As Europe's political and economic weight declines and Turkey is consolidated as a regional power, existing cooperation on economic issues will be increasingly supplemented by cooperation in other areas in order to maintain a geopolitical balance in the region and limit the presence of external actors. As a result, greater cooperation between Turkey and European countries can be expected in the coming years.

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