Earlier this week, I attended a round table meeting on the future of Europe in London hosted by Turkey's EU Ministry. Turkish and British journalists shared their views on pressing problems in the old continent and the state of Turkey-EU relations. Among the participants were representatives from Sabah and Daily Sabah, A Haber, Anadolu Agency, CNN Turk, TRT World, The Times, The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and Reuters.
The discussion focused on Turkey's rapprochement with Russia, the country's place in the Western alliance, the future of the refugee deal and the prospect of peace in Cyprus. In particular, the participants considered the risk of 3 million Syrian refugees reaching Europe as a nightmare scenario. In response, the Turkish participants warned that the European Union's attempts to strong arm Turkey into softening its anti-terror laws in return for visa liberalization was a serious mistake.
Without a doubt, the most interesting aspect of the meeting was that it featured journalists from two countries whose relationship with Brussels was uncertain. After five decades of integration talks, the Turks have grown tired of the EU. In contrast, Britain just decided to leave the organization. Obviously, the two countries have a lot to learn from one another.
Although Ankara and London followed different paths, they have a lot in common today. And Turkey's pursuit of EU membership is closely related to London's way out.
Needless to say, Britain's agenda focuses on the Brexit process, which is set to begin in March. There are two potential road maps at this time: First, what is called "Hard Brexit" would involve a quick exit without an alternative agreement with the European Union. In this case, the Brits will forfeit their access to the common market and assume full authority over immigration and trade deals. However, the uncertainty that this option entails makes big business, in particular the financial sector, uncomfortable.
The second option is Soft Brexit, which would slow down Britain's exit by creating an alternative arrangement related to free trade. The idea of the free movement of people, goods, services and capital without the downsides.
I maintain that the Brexit could facilitate the adoption of a more flexible integration strategy on the basis of a multi-speed Europe. Still, how Germany and France – the engines of Europe – will respond to global trends will be crucial. Protectionism, the rise of the far right, populism, the Trump administration's approach to transatlantic relations and the emerging balance of power between Washington, Moscow and Beijing immediately come to mind.
Moreover, the kind of relationship Donald Trump's White House will develop with Europe and how Washington's engagement with Moscow will affect the old continent remain uncertain – yet extremely important. In other words, European governments are waiting for the inauguration to learn more about what lies ahead.
The upside of the meeting was the commitment of participants to strategic and rational discussions rather than name-calling. Another positive development was our ability to talk about Turkey's place in the Western alliance in a calm and collected manner.
The Turkish participants noted that Ankara cooperated with Moscow to further its national interests and argued that closer cooperation with Russia wasn't necessarily an alternative to Turkey's ties to the West. Instead, we stressed the importance of Western governments living up to their commitments to Turkey as allies. It would appear that not only London but also the rest of Europe desperately need to brace themselves for a new engagement between Washington and Moscow.
At this time, the cooperation between Turkey and Russia serves as a prelude to what is to come. Furthermore, there is some level of discomfort in Europe about Western nations being left out during the Syrian cease-fire talks and the upcoming Astana process. Some participants were openly critical of the West's lack of a coherent strategy regarding Syria and argued that Turkey was making a rational choice by seeking an end to the civil war next door. Others claimed that the government was putting to work the same principles that Western governments could not defend by working more closely with Moscow.
It was important to be in London to understand how uncertain Europe's future was and to appreciate the importance of Turkey's agency in the region.