Turkey on the Brink

Ömer Taşpınar and
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

June 1, 2006

“Who lost Turkey?” A complacent West could be forced to confront this previously unthinkable question within the next few years. This risk has little to do with Turkey’s alleged Islamic turn. On the contrary, the moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party (known by the Turkish acronym AKP) has done much more than previous Turkish governments to improve the country’s chances of joining the European Union. Today, the problem Turkey faces is not Islamization but rather a growing nationalist frustration with the United States and Europe. A majority of Turks still want to see their country firmly anchored in the West, but because of what they perceive as European double standards and the United States’ neglect of Turkish national security interests, their patience is wearing thin.

The United States and Europe should be paying close attention to what is going on in Turkey today. Turkey’s relationship with the United States is under great strain. Turks deeply resent the effect that the war in Iraq has had on their own Kurdish separatism problem. Turkey’s long-standing fear that independence-minded Kurdish nationalists would dominate northern Iraq, thereby setting a dangerous precedent for Kurds in Turkey, has since become reality. The Kurdish population of Turkey is about 15 million, 3 to 4 times more than Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Despite U.S. government protestations to the contrary, most Turks believe that a civil war in Iraq will be followed by the creation of a de facto if not de jure independent Kurdistan. In that sense, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing disorder in the country threaten 50 years of U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership.

The situation is only slightly better on the European front. Turkey’s hopes to join the EU, although boosted by Brussels’s October 3, 2005, decision to begin accession negotiations, remain distant and uncertain. Such pessimism is justified on many counts, perhaps most significantly as a result of the EU’s enlargement fatigue following the addition of 10 new members in 2004. In the aftermath of the French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution, it is now much more difficult for European politicians to ignore public opinion, particularly when critical decisions about Europe’s future are at stake. France last year even went so far as to change its constitution to require that a referendum be held to approve all future EU enlargements. Other countries may also require putting Turkish membership to a public vote. This is clearly bad news for Turkey. Already struggling with problems such as unemployment, immigration, Islamic terrorism, and Muslim integration within their current borders, Europeans are in no mood to embrace 70 million more Muslims.

Even if Turkey continues to develop its democracy and economy, major obstacles still threaten to thwart its European integration. Ankara’s hopes of membership could easily be dashed by anything ranging from a crisis over Cyprus to a national veto from one of the 25 EU countries. Equally troubling for Ankara are French and German proposals for a “privileged partnership” instead of full membership. Fueling Turkish concern about second-class membership are EU guidelines for accession negotiations that already spell out the possibility of permanent safeguards against Turkey on issues ranging from freedom of movement to regional aid. Similarly, the fact that the EU has described the accession process as not only open ended but also conditional on the EU’s absorption capacity was not lost on the many Turks who believe Brussels will always find reasons to say no to Turkey.

Such dynamics do not bode well for the future of Turkey’s relations with the West. In the past, Ankara could always rely on its strategic partnership with Washington in case things went wrong with Europe. Such an alternative may now no longer exist. For the first time in its history, Turkey has a strained relationship with the United States and the EU at the same time. Combined with issues such as Turkish resentment over the West’s failure to deliver on its promises to do more to ease Turkish Cypriots’ isolation following their approval of a settlement plan that the Greek side rejected, the revival of violence and terrorist attacks by the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (known by the Kurdish acronym PKK) now partly based in northern Iraq, and Western pressure for the recognition of the Armenian “genocide,” all the ingredients for a Turkish nationalist backlash are in place.