“Day by day, Europe is moving further away from Turkey,” Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s Minister for European Union Affairs, declared last week. But the reverse is equally true: With a mixture of disillusion and defiance, Turkey has been distancing itself from Europe in recent years. “If you do not want us,” the Turks appear to be saying, “we really do not want you.”
In reality, nearly three years after the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” Turkey is more in search of itself than it is of Europe, even if it needs Europe more than Turks are willing to admit. What is Turkey today, what are its values, and what is its destiny in a highly fluid regional environment?
The Arab Spring was initially seen as a great opportunity for Turkey, an ideal setting in which to highlight the country’s economic success, democratic political model, and indispensable strategic role in the region. The inheritors of one of the world’s great empires were proving to the world that Islam and modernity were perfectly compatible – an inspiring example for Arab countries like Egypt.
Instead, Turkey’s role inspired reservations among Egyptians; after all, the Ottoman Empire had ruled over Egypt. And, on the Turkish side, there was a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the Arab world.
The collapse of the Soviet Union awakened “neo-Ottoman” Turkish ambitions in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and revolution in the Middle East seemed to offer the heirs (if not orphans) of a long-dead empire an opportunity to avenge its loss. If a lazy and fearful Europe did not want Turkey, so much the worse for Europe; history was offering more glorious alternatives to the Turks.
Whereas Turkey could appear too Oriental and too religious in Brussels or Paris, when viewed from Cairo or Tunis, it looked like an ideal Muslim bridge to the democratic West and economically dynamic Asia. Moreover, Turkey could play some powerful cards, owing to its “good neighbor” policy with two partners and rivals, Iran and Syria, as well as its support for the short-lived presidency of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.
Unfortunately, Turkish elites’ hopes (if not expectations) were not realized. The Arab revolutions ended up exposing Turkey’s own weaknesses and contradictions, further aggravated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s repressive policies and overweening political style. This became clear in the demonstrations that spread this spring from Istanbul’s Taksim Square to much of the rest of the country (though the protests had more in common with Brazil’s recent unrest or the revolt in Paris in 1968 than with the popular movements in Egypt or Tunisia).
What characterizes Turks today is not so much pride and hope in their country’s expanding influence as fear of its disintegration. The Kurdish problem preoccupies Turks, as does their growing sense that they are losing control of two essential issues – the Syrian and Iranian crises.
In recent months, Turkey’s government has adopted an increasingly tougher stance toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, convinced that it can only fall. The agreement recently reached by the United States and Russia is, from this standpoint, frustrating news: For the price of destroying its chemical arsenal, the regime may have saved itself.
So Turkey must wonder what purpose is to be served by courting the West. Why resume, under US pressure, a nearly normal dialogue with Israel if the outcome is to be abandoned, if not betrayed, by American policy?
Similarly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate rhetoric, together with possible progress on Iran’s dispute with the West over its nuclear program, has left Turkey with a sense of uselessness, if not isolation. How can a country perceive itself, and be perceived by others, as a key regional actor if it finds itself marginalized at the critical moment?
History is moving in the Middle East, but not in the direction that Turkey would prefer. And, with their country’s economic growth faltering, its government hardening, and its diplomatic performance a source of growing disappointment, many Turks now openly wonder what happened. But, far from engaging in an open and positive self-examination, they are too often retreating into a strident nationalism that is all the more defensive to the extent that it reflects a growing lack of self-confidence.
Turkey’s current challenge is to overcome lost illusions. And that means that Turks may need Europe more than they are willing to admit, even to themselves. But is Europe today any more ready and willing than it was yesterday to engage in serious talks with Turkey?
Dominique Moisi, Senior Adviser at The French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.