by Javier Solana
Published: Project Syndicate, 29 June 2015
MADRID ‒ June’s Turkish general election sent a powerful message: Turkey’s democracy remains intact. Indeed, while there were some grievances about transparency during the campaign process, democracy prevailed, with a stunning 86% of eligible voters turning out – a rate rarely seen in Europe. The rest of the world – and especially the European Union – should take note.
With their votes, Turkey’s citizens denied the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) the absolute majority that it needed to amend the constitution. Moreover, by giving the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – which brings together the country’s long-marginalized Kurdish minority and other groups – more than 10% of the vote, they enabled the party to enter parliament for the first time, with representation throughout the country, not just in Kurd-majority areas. Reinforcing this triumph of pluralism, the Alevi and Christian minority groups won greater parliamentary representation, and the Yazidis and Roma will be represented for the first time.
The new parliamentary configuration is likely to have a major impact on Turkey’s foreign policy, which has faced serious challenges in the last few years. Indeed, as regional conflicts have intensified, the country’s central foreign-policy objective of ensuring “zero problems” with its neighbors has become unattainable. And the policies that Turkey has pursued, most notably toward Syria and Egypt, have satisfied neither the region’s Sunni-majority countries nor the West.
Perhaps more important, the AKP government’s foreign policy has faced considerable criticism from domestic forces, which now have more power to change it – an outcome that will occur regardless of whether the AKP ultimately forms a coalition or a minority government. The direction of change will have to account for the various parties’ preferred approaches.
The secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, for example, opposes interference in the internal affairs of any country, advocating instead that Turkey re-establish good relations with the countries of the region, including Syria. By contrast, the HDP protested against the previous AKP government’s failure to intervene last year when the Islamic State besieged the Syrian city of Kobane.
For its part, the rightist Nationalist Movement Party criticizes the AKP administration’s decision to denounce the current Egyptian government, arguing that the move has all but eliminated Turkey’s influence in the country. Now, the party asserts, Turkey should work to defend its regional neighbors’ territorial integrity.
Amid all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: Turkey cannot turn inward. Indeed, as a regional power, it has a responsibility to work to ease tensions and promote conflict resolution. It also has a long-term national interest in increased regional stability, not least because it would help to stem the tide of refugees – already numbering two million – flowing into the country, while opening up more commercial opportunities nearby.
Turkey’s democratic revival represents an ideal opportunity for the EU to rekindle its relations with the country. The EU is Turkey’s leading trade partner and one of its largest investors, and has long considered Turkey to be a stable ally in a volatile region. The escalation of warfare and sectarian violence, which are becoming chronic, endanger both Turkey and Europe.
In this context, renewed relations would serve both sides’ interests. The EU could, for example, provide diplomatic support in Turkey’s dealings with its neighbors and humanitarian aid to help refugees. Given that a more stable Middle East would send fewer refugees and terrorists across its borders, Europe has a strong incentive to provide such support.
The urgency of this situation demands that the bilateral relationship move beyond narrow discussions of Turkey’s accession to the EU. After all, given broad resistance to any further EU enlargement at the moment, the accession process will undoubtedly move very slowly. The objective should thus be to find new, more efficient modes of cooperation that avoid the issues and conflicts that have impeded accession negotiations.
This is not to say that the accession process should be abandoned. Rather, other more efficient channels of cooperation should be opened up in parallel to it.
A good place to start would be a meeting of members of the European and Turkish parliaments. European leaders should also carefully monitor the possible revision of Turkish foreign policy, grasping opportunities to reignite bilateral dialogue on issues of common interest. This will require subsequent high-level meetings at regular intervals, in order to produce agreement regarding specific joint actions on urgent challenges.
This is a moment of opportunity for EU-Turkey relations, and it must be seized. Achieving the goal of enhanced stability in the Middle East requires the two sides to work together. Europe should not let this train pass it by.