On an invitation from the Middle East Institute (MEI), the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) was pleased to co-sponsor the 9th Annual Conference on Turkey on December 4th, 2018. The event convened experts on Turkey from government, academia, NGOs and non-profit organizations on topics concerning Turkish domestic policy, Turkish youth, and Turkish relations with the West and its neighbors in the Middle East. The proceedings were livestreamed and are available to view online. The participation of the FES for the fourth consecutive year is illustrative of not only the Foundation’s mission to support the values of social democracy around the world, but also the important role of civil society in foreign policy discourse. As Knut Dethlefsen (FES Representative to the US and Canada) noted, invoking Willy Brandt, “‘international affairs are far too important to be left to governments alone’.”
Turkey is also of unique importance of to the German and Transatlantic foreign policy environment. “Turkey is of course, for Germany, and in particular, for the Social Democratic Party, a very important country, society, and actor” Dethlefsen noted. The reasons for this have immediate significance, reference the past, and are relevant for the future. Germany has a population of some 4 million Turkish-German citizens or residents, making Turkey a significant topic in German domestic politics and society. German and Turkish history since the end of the First World War has been marked by exchange, including Turkey as a place of exile for German Social Democrats, particularly Ernst Reuter. Turkey plays a role in the future, Dethlefsen said, as “from a German perspective, Turkey is crucial if we want a stable, democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East.”
The first panel, entitled “Turkey’s Domestic Policy – In Dire Straits?” addressed a wide variety of domestic political developments, including a history of recent transformations in the Turkish political landscape. These included a history of Recip Tayyipp Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the tensions among the political and social opposition, the role of religion in the state, and Turkey’s economic aspirations and challenges. In particular, a populist-nationalist rhetorical and political strategy has been instituted, which rejects western civilization as incompatible with Islam, considers Turkish moderates and western partnerships as illegitimate, and consequently attempts to discredit parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition to the Turkish government. The panel repeatedly discussed the fact that despite these political developments, social divisions within Turkey are more nuanced than many often realize, though there is no doubt that Turkish society is a highly polarized one. This polarization is also accompanied by a loss of trust in institutions and the rule of law – trends that are also becoming manifest in the West.
The second panel of the day, “The Future of Turkey’s Youth in Times of Turmoil” was moderated by FES Representative to Turkey, Felix Schmidt, and included the Honorable Serpil Midyatli (SPD member of the State Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein). Turkey’s population is one of the youngest in the world, and while the youth are the future everywhere, the size of the youth population in Turkey means Turkish politics will be even more dependent on the fortunes of the “Gezi Generation”. Here, Germany plays an interesting role as it offers an educational, social, and cultural comparison for young Turks and Germans of Turkish descent in the Federal Republic. However, this comparative case is not without challenges, as integration of Turkish populations in Germany remains a work in progress. In Turkey, domestic youth unemployment illustrates a bleak picture for a generation coming of age politically. Most youth believe that AKP party membership or social connections are more important to successful job acquisition than educational achievement or credentials. Brain drain is also an issue, as youth exchange programs tend to be one-sided, and well-educated young Turks emigrate in response to limited opportunities and clientelism. The question for the political future is, will they return to Turkey, bringing their skills and perspectives back to the Turkish polity?
The Honorable Dietmar Nietan (Member, German Bundestag and Federal Treasurer of the Social Democratic Party of Germany) delivered the keynote address, emphasizing shifts in Turkish foreign policy and how this has created tensions and affects relations with Germany and the European Union. Nietan also emphasized that the United States, the European Union, Germany, and Turkey have more to gain in recognizing and maintaining positive bilateral relations than to act on the temptation to avoid cooperation and coordination based on disagreements with each other. Despite political tensions, Germany, Turkey, and the United States are NATO members, and all share important economic relationships with each other. Cooperation is therefore not just a military or economic necessity, but an issue of shared liberal values that are sometimes difficult to pursue.
The final panel of the conference, “Too Important to Fail? Turkey’s Relations with the West and the Middle East” was a spirited discussion of foreign policy relations and strategy. The future of EU-Turkish (and German-Turkish) foreign policy is dependent on balancing values and human rights compliance bilaterally and regionally, and remains rife with challenges. The Turkish-Western alliance demands a redefinition of its own purpose and basic framework. Civil conflicts in weak states have resulted in a decline of unified state authority and a rise of powerful factions with influence over fractured societies. Such conflicts are not always sectarian, but rather a crisis of competing regional, state, and non-state actors. Even religious debates are complicated not only by issues of sectarian strife but ideas of the role of Islam in a given society – Turkish relations with neighbors in the Middle East also test some of these different conceptions. For the West, these challenges raise the question of military intervention – the regional role of Turkey has implications for the approaches to solving the crisis and ending the conflict in Syria. The Honorable Arne Lietz (SPD member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament) participated in the panel.
At the end of a stimulating and well-attended conference, Dietmar Nietan noted that one of the major takeaways from the day was the necessity to recognize the nuances in Turkish politics and society. The challenges and divisions between Turkey and the West and the internal challenges of Turkish society are not black and white. Indeed, these challenges are ever-shifting as extant alliances in the West and the Middle East are being transformed; polarization grows in the United States, Germany, and Turkey; and a crisis of democratic institutions and rule of law seize the West and the Middle East. Turkish-Western relations demand dialogue and consultation with each other despite current challenges in pursuit of all that is shared, and all that can hope to be achieved together in the future.