As so often happens in life and in global politics, something right and important is taking place at the worst conceivable time. Now the refugee crisis has finally forced Europe to focus on Turkey, a country that it has treated like an unloved stepchild for years.
A new and perhaps historic situation has arisen. Now Europe needs the country that was so long unloved. Even as Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan cracks down on freedoms, the European Union must achieve closer ties with the country. Indeed, it is compelled to wish for a strong and stable Turkey and to believe that this moment, that seems so precarious, is the right time for rapprochement.
For a long time, Europeans made things easy for themselves: Turkey was Syria’s neighbor. The civil war and refugees were Turkey’s problem. But no longer. Ever since asylum seekers started streaming across the sea and through the Balkans to Europe.
Germany’s chancellor understands this. In fact, the refugee issue has become so critical that you could say: A positive agreement with Turkey at the E.U. summit on Monday is possibly more important for Angela Merkel than the three state elections. If not more so.
Angela Merkel, of all people. Of all countries, Turkey. But the history of Turkey’s connection to the West is long, complex and rich with unrequited love.
Soldiers yes, citizens no
Turkey was never taken seriously as a future member of the European Union, but always as a dependable NATO partner. The young republic managed to stay out of World War II. But in the decades after, as global politics changes, Turkey sought and quickly found a role alongside the West and the United States – and against the Soviet Union.
The founders of the Turkish republic were firmly resolved to enter the ranks of Western nations. Its founding father, Kemal Atatürk, proclaimed that Turkey should look to the West and not get involved in the Middle East that it borders.
The East represented the past and fallen Ottoman Empire. The West was the future of a new, modern Turkey. After World War II, Turkey followed the Americans almost unconditionally. The guideline bequeathed by Atatürk’s foreign policy was "Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh!" ("peace in the homeland, peace in the world.")
Turkey’s relationship with the European Union was not nearly as easy as its admission to the NATO military alliance. The dream of membership began in 1963 with a treaty of association with the E.U. predecessor, the European Economic Community. There followed a series of humiliations for Turkey. Its first application for membership was rejected in 1989. In 1999, the European Union reversed its position and opened accession negotiations. The next setback came in 2009, when the new E.U. member, Cyprus – whose Greek part was long in conflict with Turkey – used its veto to block further negotiations with Ankara.