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Guest Viewpoints

An interview with Brooking Institute’s Kemal Kirisci: Turkey and Europe: About to leap?

As tensions rise in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish provocation directly concerns international allegiances in a volatile territory. How has the U.S. diplomatic language addressed this volatility, and what should Greece be reading between the lines?

“I know I keep kicking the ball into the European Union’s court,” says Kemal Kirisci as we discuss the refugee crisis at the EU-Turkey borders. “But I think the European Union can take unilateral actions towards Turkey.” For the former director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project at Brookings, such a call for European initiative is repeated many times in our discussions, which take place against the backdrop of recently increased tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkish ships were moving toward Greek and Cypriot waters.

Some argue that tensions are part of Turkey’s negotiating process, but Kirisci offers a different analysis, suggesting we have moved past negotiation tactics, into a phase where “Turkey's identity is significantly changing in the context of the conversion of Hagia Sofia, from being a museum, to a mosque. In Turkey, in the fringe media, in the alternative media, there is a debate how this is also a settling of accounts with the Turkish republic the way it was set up in the 1920s, and the way in which in 1934, in an effort to mobilize Western support in support of the republic's efforts to westernize itself, it converted the mosque into a museum, to send a very critical message, that we are not anymore the Ottoman empire, we are not after irredentism, or after neo-Ottomanism.” Kirisci suggests that we are currently witnessing the “dismantlement” of that spirit, returning to call the Hagia Sofia conversion an example of religion getting mixed up with politics, and noting how it helps the Turkish government divert attention from what appears to be a weakening electoral base of the country’s president and his party. But the former Jean Monnet chair in European integration professor at Istanbul’s Bogaziçi University argues that the West is facilitating this. “It's making it easier for the Turkish government and the Turkish president to argue their line internally, to legitimize its line internally, and to mobilize support internally.”

His argument goes back to the Cypriot rejection of the Annan plan, which he maintains began to erode Turkey’s relationship with the EU, but links historical developments such as the Arab Spring to current American foreign policy to point to what he describes as a Western vacuum in the region, combined with “a (Turkish) foreign policy that at least one young Turkish scholar called pan-Islamism, as opposed to neo-Ottomanism.”

Kirisci points to the West’s retreat as initially an ethical one: “The West chose to live reasonably happily with al Sisi, who had overthrown an elected government, supported mostly by the Muslim Brotherhood. And in Turkey, the current Turkish president has used this very effectively in domestic politics, to show how the West, but also the EU, fails to live up to its own standards, to its own values.” According to Kirisci, who says that, in Libya, “the West – especially France and Macron – have found themselves in alliance with characters of suspect background, like Haftar.” These circumstances paved the way for the appearance of loneliness that the Turkish government seems to welcome, as it allows it to defend its distancing from the EU, which it sees as playing a win-lose game. For Turkey, Kirisci says, the solution to taking a loss is for everyone to do so. “In the process of playing that lose-lose game,” he says, “the Turkish government is able to turn around to its Turkish public and present a Turkey that is playing power politics, and is a global power that is standing up to the West, and even to Russia, although Russia at the same time is supposed to be a partner of Turkey.”

It is not just the EU that Kirisci points to for the power vacuum, as he contests that the increased volatility and flux stems from what is happening in the United States. “The U.S.-led, rule-based international order has weakened primarily because of Trump's policies, but also because there is a challenger emerging against the United States. In the kind of flux that is prevailing in the U.S., the U.S. is not able to come up with an answer, with a response to that challenge,” he says, while pointing out that the “cozy relationship” the American and Turkish presidents have will at some point give way to the authority of American policy institutions, which “are on different pages when it comes to Syria, different pages – to some extent – on Libya, on Russia, and I think very much on a different page when it comes to the United States commitment to the Western alliance, to NATO, and supporting the European Union.”

For Kirisci, the eastern Mediterranean is part and parcel of the whole game; it is linked to energy issues, and it also points to “the way in which Turkey began to resort to policies very similar to the first half of the 1990s, when Turkey was referred, in at least academic literature, as a post-cold war warrior coercive power, as opposed to a soft power, a benign power,” which moves in to define “national security concerns and threats.” As to the rhetoric previously analyzed, Kirisci argues that both Libya and the eastern Mediterranean allow the Turkish president and government to promote to their people the argument that they are a global power being ignored. There are powers ignored in Turkey, as well, as Kirisci tells me how “there is no more classic traditional Turkish foreign policy making, where seasoned, high-value diplomats are calculating things and making moves. They are, I hate to say, irrelevant.” It is a challenging picture, one in which Kirisci sees the Turkish democracy, the Turkish rule of law having been severely damaged, while the government and the ruling political party have been severely weakened, as Turkey “is led by a new elite, that is successfully, increasingly disengaging Turkey from the West.”

Emphasizing that he is not absolving what is happening inside Turkey, Kirisci suggests that the European Union should approach Turkey, taking partial responsibility for the situation in which the country finds itself, and committing to a European future for it, provided it meets established criteria. He is quick to call this a fantasy approach, noting that international support for such a development not only appears uncertain, but its credibility in the Turkish context would also have to be addressed. Regardless, he maintains this could offer the opposition a political program around which it could unite toward an electoral win, noting that the “only way to address and resolve Turkey’s problems is working with the West.”

“Things don’t look very promising, I am afraid,” Kirisci tells me, winding down his passionate argument to a somber halt. In his “fantasy approach,” he has set up a secular European Union against a Turkey dealing with what he calls the failure of the political movement known as political Islam to reconcile liberal democracy and Islam. If he is right that things don’t look very promising, the greatest clue – and irony – might be that any approach between either would take a leap of faith.

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