Skip to main content

Given its strategic value over many decades, and in current times its long border with Syria and its swelling refugee camps, it is a great puzzle why Turkey is frequently overlooked or even deliberately ignored by western countries that are supposed to be friendly.

Just last week, Turkey's chief negotiator with the European Union declared that his country's long-standing bid to join the EU would likely fail. Over decades Europe has tied itself in knots to prevent Turkey's membership, declaring publicly that Turkey is not really in Europe, but whispering behind its hand that Turkey is, well, a Muslim country. Turkey is in Europe, actually – just barely; it straddles two continents, its European side occupying a small strip west of the Bosphorous and including Istanbul, bordering on Bulgaria and Greece.

As an aside, Turkey has a sophisticated economy with the best growth rate in the Mediterranean and, for that matter in much of Europe, and it has cleared virtually all its debt. (Unlike many others, not to single out its nemesis Greece.) As for being a Muslim country, it has a majority Muslim population, but has organized itself as a secular society and has aligned on most issues with so-called western values since Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in the 1920s.

But if Turkey fails some arbitrary tests in Europe, other organizations demonstrate that one can never expect consistency in international relations.

In 1952 Turkey was welcomed as a full member of NATO, an Atlantic defence organization, although even in prehistoric days the Atlantic Ocean did not extend itself into the Mediterranean, and no one would ever make the case that Turkey has an Atlantic coast. For defence purposes, however, Turkey was seen as a powerful and strategic ally in the Cold War. It has a large and well equipped military, and it is not afraid of a fight. And post Cold War, as the Middle East continues in turmoil, Turkey is a sturdy anchor for Europe and the rest of the west in dealing with the Arab world.

Still, even within NATO, Turkey is treated as an outsider. At more than one meeting of NATO foreign ministers I personally have witnessed the Turkish minister ignored and visibly snubbed by many of his western colleagues. The most blatant offender was France: ironically, as it is the country that remained a NATO member while holding its military separate from and uncoordinated with its NATO partners.

In the diplomatic world it is clear that inconsistency is not an indictable offence.

Thus Foreign Minister John Baird's recent official visit to Turkey was significant, and following shortly after a visit by Trade Minister Ed Fast, should signal that Canada, at least, values the relationship both bilaterally and in the broader world.

Unfortunately Canada cannot do much to improve Turkey's chances in Europe.

As recently as last February Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, in a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Affairs, spoke optimistically of the steps being taken to move Turkey towards full accession to Europe. The talks went off the rails a few months later when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly and decisively put down a public demonstration in Istanbul's Taksim Square. The predictable response from Europe, with France once again in the forefront, was to attack Turkey's credentials as a democracy.

The other seemingly intractable problem between Europe and Turkey is Cyprus, the island nation that, with the help of its protector Greece, was welcomed into the EU in 2004. Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been battling over the country for at least a half century, with open warfare wreaking havoc throughout the 1950s and '60s. A United Nations boundary between the two, the Green Line, has been guarded by peacekeepers ever since. While the Turks were stronger militarily, the Greeks won the peace, and today the Greek Cypriot region of the island is recognized as the official "Cyprus." Thus Europe beckoned, and Turkey, which refuses to give up its Cyprus claim, is seen as the troublemaker; another fig leaf for the anti-Turkey European members to cling to.

Close observers speculate that Turkey may choose to walk away from its European Union bid by itself, rather than suffer the humiliation of rejection, although that would be shortsighted. Whatever happens, Europe and Turkey need each other. They should be natural allies in battles with terrorism, in building bridges between Arab and western nations, and in the uneven but inevitable path to democracy in the Middle East. Europe's economy is passing through a difficult phase, and Turkey's is strong.

Minister Baird recognizes that Canada has more than a passing interest in ensuring a strong partnership between Turkey and the West. Turkey is a proud country and Canada will benefit both economically and geopolitically by developing the relationship both bilaterally and through the G20. In the meantime, Turkey is on the front line with Syria, with an influx of refugees that is pushing the limits of Turkey's capacity. It is in Canada's interest to play whatever role it can in working with Turkey to alleviate, however modestly, the pressures it faces, as well as to build stronger economic ties.

Barbara McDougall was Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1991 to 1993.