Over the last decade, the Turkish foreign policy has been going through a period of profound flux and reinvigoration. The end of the Cold war and the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, have induced Turkey to think about the Mediterranean as a distinct region, giving rise to the idea of Turkish Mediterranean foreign policies in the 1990s. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) or the Barcelona Declaration, launched in 1995, was the first concrete policy initiative towards the region which aimed to create dialogue and cooperation in the Mediterranean. The declaration is the founding act of a comprehensive partnership between the European Union (EU) and twelve countries in the Southern Mediterranean, with the aim of strengthening North-South relations as well as fostering South-South interaction while assisting Mediterranean countries to become more aware of the opportunities in their region.

The Turkish view of the EMP has been marked by a degree of indifference since the EU launched it. Amongst the reasons that have led Turkey to be indifferent towards the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, are its long historical relationship with Europe, the Mediterranean perception of Turkish foreign policy, and the utopian nature of the measures proposed by the objectives of the EMP. Turkey remains interested, from a foreign policy perspective, in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East as distinct sub-regions. This is beneficial for Turkey’s own survival, because both regions are affected by ethnic and territorial conflict, which are issues of great concern to Turkey. The Cyprus issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict and most recently Iraq, are all issues of great concern to Turkey’s national interests.

Furthermore, not being granted full membership by the EU has resulted in Turkey having a primary interest in its neighbourhood policy rather than in global foreign policy. With the rise of extremism, ideologies undermining state borders, high levels of violence and a deepening socio-economic malaise, it is crucial for Turkey to ensure it is embedded in EU policies. However, Turkey is  hesitant to align itself to the EU positions on issues which touch its vital foreign policy and security interests. In particular regarding its geographical neighbourhood, where it insists on a distinct national position. As a result, major security challenges such as organised crime, terrorism and migration still pose a threat to the EU and its southern neighbours because Turkey, which is regarded as an influential state in the region, has acted independently on such issues by means of its own neighbourhood policy.

With Turkish accession, the Union’s borders would extend to the Southern Caucasus, (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) and to Syria, Iran and Iraq. This will increase the Union’s foreign policy involvement in issues that previously would have been considered as bilateral between Turkey and its neighbours. Furthermore, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours policy’ resembles the idea of building and promoting a “ring of friends” that the EU wants to create around its borders. As a result of the forgoing, Turkey is likely to create a situation where the EMP will be ineffective, as it will be competing with it instead of collaborating. This causes large security challenges within the Mediterranean region.

Turkish foreign policy has raised the question of whether Turkey is moving in the direction of the country group that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) which are increasingly assuming a more active role in the changing global environment. In light of the above, two theories, that is, the autonomy theory and the axis theory, can be used to explain Turkish foreign policy. According to the axis theory, Turkey’s choices in international relations are being drawn from a set of actions that are arrayed along a single “East” versus “West” or “secular” versus “Islamic” dimension. This dimension is a spectrum with secular values (represented by the United States  and Europe) on one end and an Islamic or Eastern ideology (particularly of an Iranian or Syrian variety) at the opposite end.

An alternative to this view is the autonomy theory that suggests that the proper interpretation of the foreign policy of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since its election in 2002, is instead along a vertical dimension, rising from bloc-aligned policies to an autonomous and independent policy strategy. The Autonomy theory stems more from popular nationalism and greater self-confidence than from a shifting of ideological or bloc affiliation. Since the election of the AKP, the transition from a bloc-oriented  North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country to a more autonomous agenda has been accompanied by rising questions about Turkey’s international identity. Additionally, the United States of America’s (USA) hard and soft power in the Middle East, epitomized by two Gulf wars and democracy promotion policies, respectively contributed to creating a vacuum that Turkey has willingly filled and has had implications on the EU-Turkey relations.

Furthermore, the challenges arising from the 2011 Arab Spring, have transformed Turkey into a global actor based on its blueprint outlined in the “Strategic Depth” doctrine. This pushed for re-engagement with the Middle East, in particular Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states . In this respect, Syria has started to move its agenda throughout a rediscovered pro-Western attitude, asking the intervention of the international community towards NATO’s assistance through the influence of Turkey. Muslim countries may be more inclined to listen to Turkey than the EU in view of historical and religious bonds tying Turkey to the Middle East. Meanwhile, Turkey’s improved relations with the southern neighbours and its involvement in the Israel and Palestine mediation, which ended the Israeli offensive in 2009, were seen as a positive contribution by France and the EU. 

In conclusion,  creating a conducive environment for dialogue, reconciliation and transformation in the long run for Turkey and the EU is important. Turkey has played a role to play in assisting reform and transformation among Arab countries and it can also play a role to convince Israel to reform its outlook and strategy towards the Arab world and Palestinians.


Photo credit: European Parliament