Whisper it, but Europe and Turkey are talking again | Natalie Nougayrède | Opinion

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Remember how, during the Brexit referendum campaign, voters were told that “millions of Turks” would swamp Europe and Britain if it didn’t get out? Government ministers went on TV to say Turkey’s accession to the EU was just on the horizon, as a result of a refugee deal brokered between Angela Merkel and the Turkish government. Brexiters assured audiences that visa liberalisation for Turks was looming: the hordes were at the gates. None of that happened, of course. Nor is it about to.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Turkey is currently seeking to reset its relations with the EU – and it is doing so without winning visa-free travel to the bloc for its citizens, or signs of any progress in its EU accession negotiations. In a nutshell: it looks like the EU has played its cards rather well with this complex and antagonising partner. Surely that’s encouraging, at a time when Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and others want to put a positive spin on Europe’s prospects and insist it must start fending for itself more in the unpredictable world of Trump and Brexit.

Ankara is a very tense place these days. Turkish academics tell haunting stories of not knowing whether they will be able to come home to their family in the evening because security forces can lock them up on any pretext. With political purges still being carried out in the aftermath of last July’s coup attempt against President Erdoğan, anyone can be arrested, anytime. Even receiving an email or a text from someone you don’t even know, but who’s listed as a suspected “Gülenist” (the group accused of fostering the coup attempt), is enough to make you end up in the sights of the state’s repression.

But in recent discussions with Turkish officials and civil society members, as well as EU representatives and US experts, I heard much about how our large Muslim neighbour to the east now wants to “renew” a fraught relationship. After all that’s been said about Erdoğan blackmailing Europe, this sets rather a different tone. As paranoid and aggressive as he is, the Turkish president now appears to want to take his country out of its isolation.

There are understandable reasons for this. The Middle East has become an ever more worrying cauldron of tensions. Turkey’s latest moves to side with Qatar against Saudi Arabia are another example of how badly things have turned out for a “neo-Ottoman” power that once promised to have “zero problems” with all its neighbours. And Turkey’s relations with Russia aren’t all that promising, either. Pledges of reconciliation after the downing of a Russian plane over Syria in 2015 by Turkish forces have given way to an awkward standoff. Likewise, Turkey feels it’s been undermined by the US, which is arming Syrian Kurdish groups in the fight against Islamic State – a move Ankara obsessively sees as a threat to its national security because of the connections with the PKK.

The result of all of this is that, despite all its bluster, Turkey is unlikely to break off the refugee deal Merkel negotiated last year, which allowed the stemming of massive refugee flows into Europe through the Balkan route. However controversial the agreement, any realistic assessment must surely acknowledge that it went a long way to preventing more deaths at sea in the Aegean, but also ensuring that populist forces didn’t further engulf European politics by playing on fears of uncontrolled migration.

This has huge implications for the EU: it makes it look efficient. Additionally, it certainly helps Merkel’s re-election prospects, as she attempts to reboot the EU project alongside Macron.

Little noticed, on 25 May, Erdoğan met EU leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, on the sidelines of Donald Trump’s disastrous visit to Nato. They agreed to tentatively warm up relations, but the shift was deliberately kept quiet. Turkey’s image is so bad that European politicians are wary of appearing to cosy up to a leader with authoritarian tendencies. And Erdoğan does not want to look as if he’s caving in to EU demands to modify the anti-terrrorism legislation he handily uses to crush dissent. The issue could be fudged, at least to keep dialogue on track.

Turkey remains an uneasy partner for Europe, but both sides seem to recognise they can’t do without one another in a shifting, dangerous geopolitical environment. Nor can Turkey afford to dispense with Nato security guarantees, which Europeans are, after all, part of. It’s not as if China’s “one belt one road” trade project, or Russia, for that matter, offer alternatives. No one believes Turkey will get into the EU club any time soon (for one thing, Cyprus talks have stalled), but the relationship is back to “talking for the sake of talking”, as one European source puts it.

Besides, Turkey’s economy isn’t doing so well, and Erdoğan has an interest in keeping the EU funds coming in, as part of the refugee deal.

It’s true a thousand things could go wrong. Just as Erdoğan didn’t hesitate to lambast European governments (calling them Nazi-like) during the Turkish referendum campaign, playing on anti-Turkish sentiment has been a convenient vote-winner for some European politicians – witness this year’s Dutch elections, or the Brexit referendum. Nor can Turkey’s slide to dictatorship be overlooked if the EU stands for values: Turkish dissidents need support, not European pandering to a tyrant.

Whatever his motives, the Turkish strongman seems set on rekindling relations with the EU. This should give Europe leverage as it attempts to show diplomatic muscle. With all its complexities, dealing with Turkey could become the untold success story of a newly confident Europe. The club isn’t about to collapse – rather, it feels emboldened. On this, also, the Brexiters were thoroughly wrong.



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