New Ground for Cooperation: The Arab Spring as a Turning Point for EU-Turkey Relations

April 1, 2012 Print PDF

Though politicians use the word “historic” in a fairly inflationary way, there is no better terminology for describing what the international community is witnessing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The uprisings that are sweeping over the region astonished Western observers as they replaced an existent narrative. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the MENA region appeared to be an area of insecurity and volatility. Such an image was even reinforced by autocratic political systems that seemed to be resistant to all reformatory efforts (turning them into ideal partners for Western politicians, who increasingly came to terms with the regional status quo). Starting with the self-immolation of the Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, the Arab demonstrations made one thing clear: Change is possible!

Soon, observers labeled the events to be an “Arab Spring.” Others recognized a “fourth wave of democratization,” and decision-makers stood up for a “Mediterranean Marshall Plan.” It is interesting to see that all those wordings and explanatory patterns recall a Western reminiscence of Cold War episodes. However, what is happening in the Arab world has only little to do with the old story of an East-West antagonism. The Arab Spring, if we call it that way, is a case sui generis. Accordingly, it should not be addressed with the old-fashioned tool box of international relations.

Old Risks and a New Kid in Town

In the beginning a domino effect seemed to wash away one Arab regime after another. However, in the meantime euphoria had to give way to a rather dim outlook. Removing a ruling elite from power is a different story from the establishment of a sustainable political system. Media and academics are questioning whether the Arab Spring is nowadays turning into an Arab Winter. In his first public speech about the Arab awakening in May 2011, President Barack Obama rightly pointed out: “But it will be years before this story reaches its end.”[1] The region is far from being a zone of peace and stability. Risks and the respective threat perception that dominated the transatlantic Middle East discourse in the past will therefore remain on top of the agenda: international terrorism, regional conflicts, the spread of WMD, failing states, and organized crime will not lose their virulence in the near future. Furthermore, it needs to be added that the youth bulge and a simultaneous lack of economic prospects in MENA countries will sustain a migratory pressure that especially impacts the EU and its member states.

At the same time, there is a change in power structures. In an age of financial turmoil and military overburdening (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) the EU and the U.S. may have reached their apparent limits in shaping global affairs. In contrast there is one player that could steadily enlarge its scope of influence: Turkey. The country, too, was surprised by the intensity of the Arab demonstrations and their call for reform. Under Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu the country pursued a policy that proactively embraced autocratic rulers. Davutoğlu’s “zero-problem policy” therefore has to be seen as a “zero problem policy with regimes.” For a long time Ankara turned a deaf ear to people’s needs and issues of civil society in its neighborhood. The doubtful state of Turkish rule of law explains to a certain degree why the country has neither the capabilities nor the credibility to act as a staunch promoter of political values like democracy, human rights, and civil liberties. It speaks volumes that Reporters without Borders lists Turkey only on rank 148 out of 179.

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