Relations between the European Union and Turkey have seldom been good. Throughout Turkey’s efforts to join the EU over the past few decades to the current tension, Europe has long looked down on the republic as a pawn in its own game rather than a partner with which it can work seriously, while stringing it along with unreliable promises about membership of the bloc.
At the Berlin Conference on Libya last weekend, for example, rather than endorsing Turkey’s support for the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and opposing the advance of renegade General Khalifa Haftar, the EU resorted to broad and vague statements that “only a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political process can end the conflict and bring lasting peace.”
When Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in October last year in Syria, the EU as a whole showed no support and – apart from a few members – condemned the military operation as Turkish aggression, and duly imposed sanctions. Turkey’s more recent dealings with the GNA in Libya have also attracted condemnation from the EU, even though in both cases the Turkish moves have been largely consistent with the bloc’s own interests. In Libya and Syria, for example, both Ankara and Brussels fear instability on their borders and a new wave of refugees, which are interlinked.
With its military incursion in Syria, Turkey aimed to create a safe zone to which around 2 million Syrian refugees could return, while simultaneously pushing out an armed group affiliated with a designated terrorist organisation. When considered against the general reconstruction and relative stability that the Turkish forces have secured in the areas captured, this has to be said to have been far-sighted.
In Libya, Turkey’s alliance with, and military support for, the GNA basically ensures the stability of a democratic government and a crackdown on the smuggling of migrants to Europe. The EU claims to be in favour of both but, tension with Turkey about its membership bid to one side, the bloc’s actions contradict its own foreign policy goals. Even Turkey is perplexed at its dogmatic opposition, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to warn the EU of the potential for a new wave of migrants if it continues its lack of support; Turkey cannot bear such a burden on its own.
There is no single factor which has caused the EU to sideline Turkey. There is, for example, the perception among EU members that Turkey is now an “Islamist” state backing some religiously-aligned factions in Syria as well as the non-secular GNA in Libya. Thus, many in the EU fear the emergence of an Islamist axis. Moreover, a GNA victory over Haftar would mean in the EU’s opinion the victory of a Sunni Muslim power over “secular Muslims” which, as the world has witnessed in Syria, is something that the West does not want to see happen.
Furthermore, the sheer practicality of supporting those like Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and Haftar has to be taken into account: both have largely dominated their countries and captured vast swathes of territory in their respective civil wars. The Assad regime has recaptured most of Syria apart from Turkey’s safe zone and a few pockets of resistance where opposition groups have held on; similarly, Haftar has taken control over much of Libya’s east and central area along the Mediterranean coast, and is now at the gates of Tripoli where the GNA is based.
In giving priority to the easy way out, as well as political grudges, over principles and morals, European nations have forgotten that nine years ago they conducted air strikes against former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They then joined in the campaign against Daesh in the Levant, when the extremist group was on course to control much of Iraq and Syria. EU rhetoric about support for democratic governance and opposition to destabilising forces has, it seems, been overlooked in the rush to condemn Turkey.
Different factions within the EU have, of course, differing views about what will establish stability: the far-right and far-left agree on the need to support the Assad regime in its fight against “terrorists” (their euphemism for the opposition), while those occupying the political centre tend not to forget the regime’s brutality and war crimes, and so back the opposition. In this sense, Turkey took the middle ground by establishing a safe zone for refugees while keeping out of Syria’s civil war and not breaching its sovereignty.
That position, though, has been ridiculed by the EU. Very few states within the EU support Turkey’s “solution”; only Spain backed Operation Peace Spring as a NATO ally, while Hungary, for example, saw sense in the plan for a safe zone. With the crisis in Libya, there is more sympathy for Turkey’s ally the GNA, but the EU remains split, with French President Emmanuel Macron and Greece making overtures to Haftar.
While the EU is essentially disunited on the Libyan conflict and has neither the will nor the capacity to act in the presence of more assertive foreign interventions, cooperating with Turkey would save it from a lot of problems arising out of the region. At the very least, its borders would be more secure, while it could cooperate in maintaining the balance of power beyond its borders. Politically, it could also strengthen democratic processes and prevent the establishment of yet another destabilising military dictatorship in the region.
Due to the EU’s stubbornness toward a perceived Turkish-Sunni power projection, it will not take such necessary steps. In the near future, the region will instead be likely to witness the EU attempting to stave off an “Islamist threat”; making more vague statements in support of a “diplomatic process”; and maligning Ankara’s peacekeeping in close proximity to Turkey’s borders. The bloc’s dogmatic opposition to Turkey may well come back to bite it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.