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As a candidate for EU membership, Turkey shares many of the bloc’s strategic interests and goals. Our borders are Europe’s and NATO’s external borders and we, too, want to build state and societal resilience.
Turkey carries much of the burden in separating the Western stretches of the Eurasian landmass from the volatile ecosystem that surrounds Europe. Our diplomatic and security presence has defended Europe for generations. In the future too, Europe will be safe and prosperous with Turkey’s contributions.
But this is not our task alone. We all have a historical and moral responsibility to help stabilize our common neighborhood and set it on course toward sustainable peace, stability and development.
Yet strong rhetoric and maximalist positions from certain EU member countries on issues with high strategic relevance are narrowing the scope for meaningful cooperation.
Here are three concrete cases:
Firstly, the situation in Libya. It has been more than a year since the warlord Khalifa Haftar and his forces launched an offensive against the country’s legitimate, U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. Divided among itself with different countries supporting different sides in the conflict, the EU failed to come up with concerted action based on its core values.
This warlord, who is financed by the United Arab Emirates and supported by Egypt and Russia, undermines the prospect of lasting peace and stability. While putschist militias and mercenaries continue to be heavily reinforced, the EU’s Operation Irini in the Mediterranean (which has the stated aim of enforcing the arms embargo on Libya) is practically sanctioning the legitimate government.
In January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wrote in POLITICO that the situation in Libya would serve as a litmus test for the EU — one it is currently failing. Europe must stand up and cry foul in the face of the shocking discovery of mass graves in Tarhuna containing the bodies of victims allegedly killed by Haftar’s forces. Meanwhile, the blockade on Libya’s oil resources is depriving the Libyan people of a crucial resource.
Leaving Libya at the mercy of a warlord was, and remains, a gross mistake. Turkey’s technical and training assistance to the legitimate government in Libya upon its request has changed the balance on the ground and increased the viability of diplomatic efforts like the Berlin Conference. Without our assistance, Tripoli would have fallen to a putschist coalition and there would have been a major humanitarian disaster — with spillover effects felt widely in Europe.
Instead of siding with Turkey, we have seen a traditional ally and European partner in France — which is backing Haftar — making false claims about an incident involving its warship and Turkish vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. When those claims were not verified by NATO, Paris withdrew from an important alliance operation. Others will judge whether that was a good strategic choice.
Secondly, regarding Syria, our presence in the northwestern city of Idlib has prevented a humanitarian catastrophe for around 3.5 million people sequestered into a small territory and subjected to violence by the Syrian regime and its supporters. Our intervention has stopped a massacre and the march of 1 million people to Europe’s southernmost border.
In parallel to our efforts to revitalize the political process, which remains the only viable way out of this decade-old crisis, we focus on preparing the conditions to facilitate returns of the Syrian refugees in a safe and voluntary manner. As the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, we have spent more than $40 billion serving the needs of 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. We cannot be expected to take more. In addition, we have provided 402,000 Syrian refugees with the chance to return to their homeland in areas taken back by Turkish troops from Daesh and PKK/YPG terrorists.
Thirdly, Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean. In our joint press conference in Ankara on July 6, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, noted that the “Eastern Mediterranean is a key region for Europe.” Well, it is for us too. We have the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Maximalist and unilateral claims by Greece and Greek Cypriots violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. These are unacceptable. Time and again, we have expressed our readiness for a dialogue to find a just, equitable and peaceful solution. So have the Turkish Cypriots. Unfortunately, the response has been hostility to Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This leaves us with no choice but to continue our drilling and exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean to protect our national interests and the equal rights of Turkish Cypriots.
These three cases are just the latest manifestations of an emerging streak of abuse and estrangement of Turkey through unsustainable policies. We have also been let down in the EU accession process and in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016.
Now there is the potential negative multiplier of the coronavirus pandemic, which can generate new instabilities or exacerbate existing ones. We must not be sucked into the maelstrom that is pitting us against each other. Europe needs constructive strategies prioritizing win-win formulas for Turkey, rather than reactive steps for the sake of EU solidarity and the narrow-minded expectations of a few countries.
There is indisputable common ground to build upon. At one level, initiatives like the Conference on the Future of Europe and the reflection process in NATO are useful steps forward. They take us in the right direction to help us adapt to the changing geostrategic outlook while respecting each other as indispensable partners.
So let us look ahead and build an inclusive framework to capitalize on the genuine transformative power of Turkey-EU cooperation in our common neighborhood. That would be the right mindset — especially in the troubled waters of the post-pandemic era.