IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2011


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

Economy and Territory

Culture and Society



Is the West Losing Turkey?

Prof. Dr Atila Eralp

Center for European Studies, Middle East Technical University, Ankara

Turkey’s relationship with the West has always been a contested issue both in Turkey and in the West. Ever since the 19th century, questions of modernisation have been closely related to issues of identity and, therefore, to domestic affairs and foreign policy. For Ottoman reformers and their successors in the Turkish Republic, modernisation has meant the fashioning of the polity along European lines through “Westernisation.” Turkish foreign policy is a key area in which some of the ramifications of this “imagined” identity can be sought. For a long time after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, numerous factors, including the Depression and World War II, prevented the forging of a multifaceted exchange between Turkey and Europe. When Turkey sought access to various Western institutions, such as the Marshall Plan, the OEEC (later OECD), the Council of Europe and NATO – all created to cement the Western alliance in the wake of the war – it did so in an effort to underscore its place in the Western bloc. The young republic’s Grand Project of Westernisation, it was thought, could not be achieved without the cooperation of Europe and the US. The post-war international system offered Turkish policymakers fertile ground for instituting organic links with the West, which resulted in the redefinition of the policy of Westernisation as belonging to the Western alliance. Within this context, Turkey began to take part in different organisations designed to enhance cooperation with Europe and the US. Membership in the emerging European Community (EC) was a logical extension of Turkey’s inclusion in other Western organisations, since the EC offered an economic dimension that supplemented the Western alliance. The absence of the US from the emerging EC did not at that point conflict with Turkey’s efforts to maintain very close relations with this ally. Turkish policymakers believed (and rightly so, with hindsight) that the US supported the creation of a Community based on the promise of Western unity. Therefore, for the Turkish governing elite during the early Cold War period, “the West” largely meant “Western Europe and the United States,” undifferentiated as the Western alliance.

The bipolar world established after the war goes a long way towards accounting for the ease with which Turkey established itself in the Western alliance. The demise of this international system, beginning as early as the 1970s, prompted all parties to revise their previous assumptions. On the Turkish side, this revision led to the realisation that the Western alliance was divided and that cooperation with the US no longer ensured the smooth relationship with Europe that it once had. In the seventies and eighties, Turkey found itself increasingly distant from the EC, which began to define liberal democracy as a sine qua non for accession. This shift in European emphasis towards democracy, seized upon by the Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese, was an opportunity of which the Turkish governing elite of the time could not take advantage. Even as the EC came to define itself less strictly in terms of economic development and more in terms of Europeanness, including, above all, the promotion of liberal democratic values, human rights and the rule of law, Turkish policymakers continued to point to economic parameters in their push for Turkey’s membership. However, the negative turn in the relationship with the EC during that period did not result in a debate over the “loss of Turkey” for the West, because the same period saw intensive cooperation between Turkey and the US increasingly based on regional concerns, primarily Iran and Afghanistan. In addition, Westernisation was a dominant factor affecting the Turkish political elites and governments of the time and was seen in a positive light in civilisational terms.

Even as the EC came to define itself more in terms of Europeanness, including, above all, the promotion of liberal democratic values, human rights and the rule of law, Turkish policymakers continued to point to economic parameters in their push for Turkey’s membership

Turkey’s relationship with the West has not been an easy one; it has had its ups and downs, its ebbs and flows. The present debate over this relationship, however, is unique compared to other periods. It is taking place at a time when Turkey is a negotiating country with the EU and within a context of increasing talk about a “train wreck” in the relationship. Turkey’s relationship with the US has also become more difficult, less smooth and cooperative than during the Cold War. Furthermore, its relationship with the West must be viewed within the changing international context, in which the international system is increasingly multipolar and regional actors are adopting more autonomous orientations. Such changes have led Turkey to undertake efforts to tailor a new strategic role based on a more regional orientation, which has entailed a reassessment of its identity and appurtenance. Furthermore, the existence of a governing party (the Justice and Development Party or AKP) since 2002 that is quite different from previous governments in terms of its views of Westernisation and that places heavier emphasis on the country’s Islamic identity has affected Turkey’s foreign policy and relations with the West. In order to clarify the present debate on whether the West is losing Turkey, in what follows, I will first briefly examine the changing international and regional context before focusing on the relationship with the European Union (EU). I will then conclude by looking at the prospects for the relationship with the West.

Changing International Context: From the Cold War to the Post-Cold War

For the Turkish governing elites during the Cold War, the “West” largely meant Western Europe and the US, undifferentiated as the “Western alliance,” and dominated by the US. At the end of the Cold War, Turkish elites belatedly realised that the West was no longer an undifferentiated entity and that the ground was more fertile for regional orientations. Turkey’s relationship with its neighbourhood thus underwent a major transformation with the end of the Cold War. In the Cold War context, this relationship was defined by the exogenous parameters of the Western alliance. Turkey was a “frontier” state within the containment policy of the Western alliance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. As a result, it had a difficult relationship with its neighbours, because most of the countries in the neighbourhood were either in the Soviet bloc or had tense relations with the West. Since Turkey defined its relationship with its neighbours in the context of the Western alliance, it did not have much choice with regard to its neighbourhood orientation and policies but to show its solidarity with the alliance, which narrowed its room for manoeuvre.

Whilst the relaxation of the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union in the seventies ushered in some changes in Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours, Turkey did not actually discover its neighbourhood until the end of the Cold War. In that period, Turkey not only became more actively involved in neighbourhood issues, but also more “autonomous” as a result of the disintegration of the Cold War framework. Turkey’s interaction with its neighbouring countries increased notably, and its economic initiatives with them, as well as the growing number of cultural and societal interactions, took on particular importance. Turkish entrepreneurs invested all over the neighbourhood, and Turkey’s volume of trade with its neighbours has increased about twentyfold since the end of the Cold War in 1991. This “sea change” in its relationship with its neighbours is particularly visible in its adoption of visa-liberalisation measures towards an increasing number of neighbouring countries in recent years, which has resulted in a more conducive climate to societal interaction between Turkey and its neighbours. The introduction of an Islamic identity into Turkish political discourse has also had an effect on its orientation towards its neighbourhood. Closer links with Middle Eastern countries have been established both at the official level and through entrepreneurs and other civil-society actors. As the international system experienced major turbulence over the last decade and became increasingly multipolar in the midst of the economic crisis, the ground for regional orientations became more fertile, and Turkey adopted a more multi-dimensional foreign-policy orientation to achieve its goal of becoming a regional actor. Turkey’s increasing autonomy from its Western allies, as well as its increasingly unilateral orientations within its neighbourhood, have fuelled the debate over whether it has changed axes in recent times.

In addition to Turkey’s evolving relationship with its neighbourhood, the country’s relationship with the EU also underwent a major transformation in the post-Cold War context. After a long period of problematic relationships in the seventies, eighties and nineties, the EU’s Helsinki Summit in 1999 put an end to the EU’s long-standing exclusionary orientation and yielded a more inclusionary policy towards Turkey, which became part of the enlargement process with a similar accession-partnership relationship as other candidate countries. The dramatic events of 9/11 resulted in a more inclusionary attitude towards Turkey not only in the US but also on the part of EU Member States and led to the realisation that including Turkey would challenge the discourse on the “clash of civilisations.” In this climate, Turkey was characterised as a “model” for the countries in its turbulent neighbourhood. These changes at the international and European levels were reinforced by domestic developments. The major economic crisis that rocked Turkey in March 2001 caused business actors to realise the need not only for the IMF anchor but also for the EU anchor in order to achieve the much-needed economic stability of the country. This assessment by the economic elites was shared by the political elites, and the EU “anchor” became the backbone of economic and political stability in Turkey.

In the changing European and Turkish contexts, both the coalition government until 2002 and the AKP government after 2002 focused on a major reform drive. Turkey thus entered an important period of transformation in which the Western-oriented reform drive increasingly turned into the concrete project of Europeanisation, focused on critical issues of democratisation. This period witnessed the belated realisation by Turkish political elites that the European integration process meant not only economic integration but also a major political transformation involving changes in sensitive political issues, such as civil-military relations, the extension of cultural rights to minority groups and the abolition of the death penalty.

With the process of Europeanisation, the EU acquired major transformative capacity within the context of Turkey’s reform initiatives and in fact became the crucial actor in defining Turkey’s relationship with the West

In the aftermath of the Helsinki Summit, the “EU anchor” therefore became more crucial in defining Turkey’s relationship with the West, as the EU affected domestic developments in Turkey through the process of Europeanisation. The different Turkish governments’ internal reform initiatives were moreover supplemented by a new outlook on foreign policy, regional initiatives and neighbourhood relations. These changes in foreign policy orientation were also characterised as Europeanisation by many analysts at the time, as they emphasised “non-zero-sum” rather than “zero-sum” solutions based on multilateral diplomatic and economic-cum-soft-security instruments as opposed to military-cum-hard security measures. With the process of Europeanisation, the EU acquired major transformative capacity within the context of Turkey’s reform initiatives and in fact became the crucial actor in defining Turkey’s relationship with the West just as in the bygone Cold War decades. All these developments meant that the relationship between Turkey and the EU was increasingly nearing high tide.

What Went Wrong?

It ultimately proved difficult, however, to sustain the positive turn in the Turkey-EU relationship and the process of Europeanisation. Just as Turkey started negotiations in 2005, after a long waiting period, the process of European integration took an unfortunate downturn. The EU had been immersed in prolonged institutional problems over the last decade, marred by the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in the successive referenda in France and the Netherlands. The Lisbon Reform Treaty emerged as the lowest common denominator, but even this compromise solution had to make it through a turbulent period before entering into force in December 2009. The EU’s long-standing institutional stalemate was reinforced by the recent economic crisis, which has plagued the EU Member States since 2008. In this rather negative context, the enlargement policy became the scapegoat for both the prolonged institutional stalemate and the emerging economic troubles. As the EU’s agenda became consumed by issues of economic governance and competitiveness and the challenges of international cohesion, the political momentum for enlargement waned and discussions of enlargement fatigue became common. Since the end of the elitist phase of the enlargement policy, the public has played a more important role, and the possibility of referenda on future accessions to the EU, specifically in the case of Turkey, has increased. Whilst support for enlargement among the European public has never been high, it is even more tepid in the case of the current potential candidates, among which Turkey enjoys the lowest support. Support for enlargement has especially tapered off in leading Member States, such as Germany and France. The most significant change has been in Germany, which used to be the most ardent supporter of the enlargement policy but is no longer pushing forward. The Franco-German axis, which has traditionally been one of the main backbones of both European integration and the enlargement policy, now stands opposed to one of the EU’s most successful policies.

Turkey became an easy target in this downturn, since it was one of the remaining two candidates and, in fact, the more problematic one at the negotiation table. It became a hot topic in the domestic debates of leading members, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, particularly during national elections and popular referenda. The debates furthermore began to revolve around major identity issues, primarily Turkey’s “Europeanness,” based on essentialist orientations. In these debates, Turkey’s “Europeanness” was defined in terms of cultural/religious identification rather than political/economic references. Debates over Turkey became increasingly contextualised within the debate over Islam vs the West. In both France and Germany, major political parties and politicians began to make strong statements suggesting that Turkey was neither geographically nor culturally European. Specifically, these stances gave rise to new ideas for alternatives to full membership, ranging from offering Turkey a “privileged partnership” to membership in projects such as the “Union for the Mediterranean.” Ultimately, these debates in the leading Member States undermined the much-needed credibility and effectiveness of Turkey’s accession process and led to a decline in trust in the relationship.

The changes in the broader international climate as a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 reinforced these adverse tendencies at the European level. The US invasion destabilised Iraq and the broader Middle East and resulted in major problems for Turkey. Iraq’s destabilisation compounded Turkey’s Kurdish problem, bringing it once again to the fore after a period of dormancy. It also fostered an emerging debate on Turkey’s turbulent neighbourhood. Those in the EU who had often characterised Turkey as a liability found a more conducive environment to voice their opposition to its accession. Furthermore, the US invasion of Iraq increased anti-American sentiments around the world, and these sentiments reached their highest-ever levels in Turkey at over 90%. The rise of anti-American attitudes in Turkey began to have adverse effects on the EU process and public perception of the West in general. In addition to the rather negative contextual shifts at the European and international levels, the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU in 2004 without a solution to the enduring Cyprus problem exacerbated negative public perceptions of the EU and the West.

Turkey acquired a new role in the neighbourhood through its soft-power capabilities, which were themselves a result of the transformation of the EU accession negotiation process

The aforementioned contextual shifts and stalemate in the EU accession negotiations affected the pro-reform coalition and led to the disintegration of the consensus on the European vocation and the rise of a more sceptical coalition of forces. Unfortunately, as Turkey started negotiations, the EU came to be seen as less of a transformative actor, and enthusiasm for the reform process fell off sharply. As conditionality rather than incentives seemed to dominate the negotiations, the accession process became less attractive for Turkey. Consequently, the political costs of supporting the process increased, leading to a dramatic decline in the domestic ownership of the project. In this context, the European debates about Turkey affected Turkey negatively, even as Turkish debates about political reform affected Europe negatively, giving rise to a “vicious circle” in the relationship.

The recent problematic period coincided with greater “activism” in Turkey’s foreign policy towards its neighbours. Turkey is involved in many foreign-policy initiatives in the Middle East, Caucasus and Balkans, through which it seeks to establish good relations aimed at ensuring “zero problems” with its neighbours. Turkey acquired a new role in the neighbourhood through its soft-power capabilities, which were themselves a result of the transformation of the EU accession negotiation process. As the EU’s significance in Turkey has waned, Turkey’s orientations towards its neighbourhood have increasingly diverged from the EU’s and its foreign policy has become increasingly “unilateral.” Turkey’s growing involvement with the Middle East region through unilateral policies moreover causes tensions with the US. These tensions were exacerbated following the deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with Israel. Furthermore, Turkey’s relationship with Iran has recently diverged from the viewpoints of the EU and the US on the nuclear issue. This negative turn in Turkey’s relationship with the EU and US has led to the resurfacing of debates over whether Turkey is changing its course and turning from the West to the East. The emphasis placed by the AKP government on multiple identities, as well as a drift towards more conservative-religious orientations both internally and regionally, have fuelled the debate on this issue.

Prospects for the Relationship

Turkey’s relationship with the West is at a critical juncture, especially its relationship with the EU, which fans the debate over whether Turkey is changing its axis and whether the West is losing it. The debate is not new; it resurfaces whenever Turkey’s relationship with the West, and especially with the EU, becomes more problematic. The debate on Turkey is also shifting from one on axes to one on its role as a model for other countries, especially those in its convulsive neighbourhood. Current changes in both the international system and its neighbourhood require moving beyond the debate over whether the West is losing Turkey and looking for ways to link it and its neighbourhood to multilateral mechanisms, which, in turn, must be redefined and revitalised in light of the current turbulent multipolar system.

In the last two decades, Turkey’s prior Cold-War role as a “frontier state” has been transformed into a potential role as a “regional keystone” in its neighbourhood. The EU anchor has been critical in this process of transformation, both substantially burnishing Turkey’s image in its neighbourhood and increasing its role as a regional soft power. However, Turkey’s role has remained at a rather potential level because of the lack of effective channels of dialogue between Turkey and the EU on the CFSP, the CSDP and neighbourhood issues. With its increased focus on foreign policy and security issues, the Lisbon Treaty provides a conducive context, and its provisions show that there is more room for “structured cooperation” and “enhanced cooperation” in these areas. Unfortunately, these mechanisms are still restricted to the members of the EU. However, in addition to coherence in the areas of foreign policy and security, there is also an urgent need to create more flexible mechanisms. If more flexible mechanisms become viable in these areas, it could help bring the policies of countries like Turkey more into line with the EU’s and thus foster the creation of more effective channels of dialogue on neighbourhood issues. Collaboration in these areas could be useful in building up much needed trust in the relationship and could help to inject new life into the problematic accession negotiations. However, collaboration in the areas of foreign policy and defence should not be thought of as substitutes or alternatives to the accession process. It must be remembered that Turkey acquired its new role in the neighbourhood through its soft-power capabilities, which are largely the result of the EU accession process.

The dramatic changes in the international system and the turbulence and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa put pressure on the US, the EU and Turkey to focus more on multilateral policies and look for ways to link multilateralism to regional actors in the Middle East and foster a sense of joint ownership among them. A critical role exists for all three in the present international context in the regions neighbouring Turkey and the EU. There are two broad possibilities for these regions: either they will become immersed in major conflicts and “power politics” will predominate or they will eventually become part of a somewhat stable multilateral system. How the US, EU and Turkey act will be extremely important in shaping these trajectories in the neighbouring regions. The recent events in the Middle East and North Africa increase the pressure on the three actors to take a more active joint stance in the neighbourhood. The upheavals in the Arab world open windows of opportunity but also of vulnerability. In order to capitalise on these opportunities, the trio needs to engage in a comprehensive dialogue with the regional actors and prioritise socio-economic development and human security. It should also be ready to “listen to” and learn from the regional actors rather than imposing its own solutions. One of the most important things that the US, EU and Turkey can do together is to encourage a new security paradigm alongside regional actors that links security, development and freedom together for the Arab world and prioritises the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Given the changing context in the Arab world, all actors need to rethink their policies. Turkey and the EU should find new ways to make their neighbourhood policies compatible

When assessing Turkey’s push into the Middle East within the broader context of neighbourhood relations, the Turkish political elites and government should realise that the EU anchor is crucial to Turkey’s role in the neighbourhood. Turkey was able to transform and enhance its soft-power capabilities through the EU accession process. It largely owes its appeal in the region to its relationship with the EU; its unique position in the region is the result of its EU anchor. Given the changing context in the Arab world, all actors need to rethink their policies. Turkey and the EU should find new ways to make their neighbourhood policies compatible. For Turkey to play the kind of role it aspires to in its neighbourhood, important hurdles must be overcome, particularly in relation to the persistence of profound political problems, as seen in the rise in infringement of freedom of expression and organisation within the country’s increasingly polarised political context, shaped by tendencies on the part of the AKP government towards majoritarian and more authoritarian rule. The most important lesson in this climate would seem to be to “heal thyself” in order to serve as an example for the countries in the neighbourhood.

It should also be underlined once again that the EU process has served as the anchor for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, just as it did for Turkey’s Southern European neighbours. The recent events in the neighbourhood place pressure on both the EU and Turkey to overcome the present vicious circle in their relationship and define a more effective working relationship, which will require complementarity in their orientations towards the neighbourhood. Turkey’s efforts in its neighbourhood require more active support from the EU and the US, but Turkish policymakers should not second-guess the need for democratic consolidation. The consolidation of democracy is a necessity not only for Turkey, but also for the neighbourhood that it shares with the EU. This, rather than the geopolitical significance that made it so crucial in the Cold War period, is the best possible way to anchor Turkey in the West.


Altunişik, Meliha; Kirişçi, Kemal; and Tocci, Nathalie. “Turkey: Reluctant Mediterranean Power.” Mediterranean Paper Series February 2011.

Arisan Eralp, Nilgün; Eralp, Atila. “What Went Wrong in the Turkey-EU Relationship?” In Karli, Mehmet et al. (ed), Another Empire? Turkey’s Foreign Policy Transformations. İstanbul: Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayinlari. Forthcoming in 2011.

Cassarino, Jean-Pierre; Tocci, Nathalie. “Rethinking the EU’s Mediterranean Policies Post-1/11.” IAI Working Paper 11, 06 March 2011.

Evin, Ahmet et al. Getting to Zero: Turkey, Its Neighbors and the West. Transatlantic Academy. 2010.

German Marshall Fund of the United States. Transatlantic Trends Survey 2010. Washington, September 2010.