The Arab Spring and Calls for a Turkey-EU Foreign Policy Dialogue

With Turkey’s urging for the Assad government to reform falling on deaf ears, Turkey raised the level of criticism, but still insisted that an orderly transition to democracy was the best option.



The Arab Spring caught both Turkey and the European Union by surprise and led both actors to review their existing policies towards the Middle East and North Africa. It also revealed disagreements between them about how to respond to the uprisings, particularly visible in the cases of Libya and Syria. The EU’s and Turkey’s different responses to the developments in the region have led several analysts to suggest that a foreign policy dialogue between the two should be established in parallel with membership talks. This article will first explore the EU’s and Turkey’s policies towards the Middle East and North Africa adopted since the uprisings began, with particular emphasis on the Libyan and Syrian cases, and then describe the recent proposals for a dialogue on foreign policy issues of mutual interest.

The European Union’s Neighborhood Policy (ENP), launched in 2003, had the aim of promoting stability in the countries in the East and South of the Union using mostly economic incentives and by providing a multilateral forum for political dialogue.  In light of the Arab Spring, the ENP was reviewed in May 2011. The main idea underpinning the review is “more for more”, which means that that the countries which make more democratic reforms in the future will receive more EU money and get to establish closer relations with the Union. These closer relations refer to increased mobility of people and more access to European markets. In addition, the Commission has increased funding dedicated to the region with an additional €1.2 billion. Critics argue that these new measures will not be enough to bring about more democratization, since the funding is relatively small, and some EU member states lack the political will to deliver on the promises of increased people mobility and market access.

Turkey’s policy towards the Middle East and North Africa was based on the concept of “zero-problems with neighbors”, formulated by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. This policy was translated in the 2000s into the signing of several agreements with neighboring countries on diverse areas including tourism, education, health and transportation and the establishment of visa-free regimes with 58 countries.  The policy paid off and the share of trade with the Middle East increased from 18.79% in 2003 to 29.3% in 2010. Turkey tried to forge closer ties with regional governments independent of their level of democracy and refrained from openly defending a pro-democratizing agenda, adopting instead an approach which consisted of encouraging regional governments, usually behind closed doors, to conduct reforms. However, the goal of having zero-problems with the neighbors was shaken by the Arab spring, and Turkey was accused of pursuing “zero problems with dictators”.  When the Arab Spring started, Turkey was slow to adapt to the new circumstances, which was particularly visible in the Libyan and Syrian cases, discussed below.

  • Turkey’s and EU’s responses to the uprising in Libya

Initially, Turkey was against imposing sanctions on Libya, saying that they would hurt the population, not the leadership, and accused some in the international community of acting not from a humanitarian perspective, but out of oil interests. Turkey was also opposed to plans to establish a no-fly zone in the country and to conduct air strikes against Gaddafi forces, warning that “NATO’s involvement should not be used to distribute Libya’s natural resources to certain countries” and saying that a “NATO intervention in Libya would be absurd”. In addition, Turkey was against France taking the leadership of anti-Gaddafi war efforts and resented not being invited to a summit meeting on Libya convened in Paris, after a UN resolution authorizing the operation in Libya was approved.

Turkey then did a complete U-turn, and insisted that the command of the operation to enforce the no-fly zone and the arms embargo and to conduct air strikes against Gaddafi forces should be given to NATO. It seems that, once it became clear that the operation was going to be carried out, Turkey did not want to be excluded from it; Turkey insisted that NATO, and not France, took the lead. Turkey then began to take part in the operation by assuming control of the Benghazi airport to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid, sending ships and a submarine to help enforce the arms embargo and later by freezing Gaddafi’s assets and imposing sanctions on the Libyan leadership.

Turkey continued its efforts to bring about a political resolution of the conflict by suggesting a road map which included the withdrawal of Gaddafi forces from besieged cities, the establishment of aid corridors and democratic change. When neither side of the Libyan conflict endorsed the road map, Turkey then agreed with the position, taken by the US, UK and France, that Gaddafi had to step down.


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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2  No. 4

Paula Sandrin is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Westminster.

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