Every day Turkey seems to be moving further away from the West. The crackdown on freedom of the press, culminating in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government closing down dozens of newspapers and radio and television broadcasters, is only the most recent blow to democracy in Turkey.
Following the failed coup d’état, Mr. Erdogan dismissed, locked up or harassed more than 60,000 soldiers, journalists, judges, lawyers, teachers and employees of state companies such as Turkish Airlines. There can hardly have been a clearer way to block the bridge over the Bosphorus and the connection it provides to Europe and its values.
And yet every day Turkey seems to become a little more important for the West, and Europe in particular. The series of attacks in recent weeks – from Nice to Würzburg and Ansbach to Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray – were more painful reminders of the danger posed by Islamist terrorism.
As there is currently no alternative to the refugee agreement negotiated by Angela Merkel with Ankara to control the flow of refugees, Turkey remains of key importance in the migration crisis. Because of its geographical location, Turkey is a buffer zone to the crisis-hit regions of the Middle East and – despite saber-rattling by Mr. Erdogan on his eastern borders – a regional force for order.
Europe and Turkey still have the same security policy interests.
This dilemma explains Europe’s ongoing zigzag course toward the autocrat in Ankara. Mr. Erdogan’s behavior is increasingly shocking, but on the sly we are very pleased to have this huge country with nearly 80 million people between the European Union and the bloody chaos which is the Middle East. And many sections of Turkey’s population feel much closer to the West and its democracies than they do to religious fanatics in the East.
This dilemma is mainly Europe's own fault. Ms. Merkel and French President Hollande missed the opportunity to engage with Turkey at an early stage with constructive E.U. membership negotiations to bring it closer to Europe’s values. And now it is too late as Mr. Erdogan, in a paranoid frenzy, turns his country into an autocracy. A country willing to exchange freedom of the press for the death penalty cannot be a member of the European Union.
But that doesn’t mean that Europe should break off all contacts across the Bosphorus. On the contrary, Turkey remains an important member of the Western defense alliance, as it was during the military coups of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As a Muslim country and because of its geopolitical location Turkey can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The NATO air force base in Incirlik is important in the fight against the so-called “Islamic State.”
Ankara also has the second largest army in NATO, which, in a world currently in such disarray, is a military asset the West cannot do without. This makes Mr. Erdogan’s recent attempts at rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin all the more alarming.
Following the rift that came between the two countries after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet last November, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin now want to meet for reconciliation talks. The Kremlin boss makes no secret of the fact that he sees NATO as an enemy. And if he can undermine Turkey’s security policy commitment to NATO, he might weaken the Western alliance.
Thus, Europe and the West have no choice but to pursue a dual strategy toward Turkey. Mr. Erdogan himself closed the door on the European “community of values” with his crackdown following the attempted coup. Europe should make it clear that only Turkey itself can reopen the door to the West.
A key to this could be the fact that Europe and Turkey still have the same security policy interests. Neither Ankara, nor Berlin nor Paris has any interest in a further escalation of the situation in the Middle East. As important as Turkey is as a buffer-zone for Europe, the connection to Europe is also an anchor of stability for Mr. Erdogan.
A second key is the economy. With his counter coup Mr. Erdogan is putting at risk the economic upturn his country has enjoyed since he took office, in which period per-capita income rose by around 40 percent. That is also a major reason why the majority of Turks give their vote to Mr. Erdogan and his party, the conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Of course, this growth was financed by capital from abroad, and Turkey has lived with high foreign trade deficits for years. Only political stability can win the confidence of foreign investors, and Mr. Erdogan can only get that in Europe.
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