Conflicts around Europe 2.

Leiden University By Ilia Barboutev, PhD candidate Leiden University

Turkey shares a border with the EU where troubling developments are occurring. With a population of over 80 million people, and through its role as a host of over 3 million Syrian refugees who would otherwise have tried to come to Europe, the current instability plaguing the country should be a serious concern for all Europeans.

On the surface, it seems that the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has only strengthened its grip on the country after defeating an alleged Gülenist coup, while winning sweeping executive powers in the recent referendum and forging a strategic alliance with elements of the Turkish Nationalist Camp.

Nevertheless, under the Strongman facade, Erdoğan’s government faces serious existential threats. The Turkish military has been embroiled in an armed conflict with its Kurdish minority for more than 90 years. While the situation is vastly different from the time when the existence of the Kurds was not even acknowledged and speaking Kurdish landed people in prison, matters seem to be worsening again.

Due to Erdoğan’s current alliance with the Nationalist Faction, and fears of Kurdish independence in Iraq and regional autonomy in Syria, the government has dropped its previous conciliatory tone and policies. A member of the Turkish Parliament has been suspended and his salary reduced for uttering the word Kurdistan in a hearing. Tensions with Turkey’s Kurds gravely undermine the integrity of the state and could be weaponized by external enemies.

The stability of the Turkish State faces an even larger risk from the political fragmentation of Turkish society. President Erdoğan’s victory in the constitutional referendum only came about because of overseas voters and suspicious ballots lacking an official seal.

The President’s hold on power is largely contingent on his ability to deliver stable economic growth. Though posting a record expansion of 11.1% in the third quarter, the Turkish economy has also experienced an inflation rate of 13% and the Turkish lira has hit historic lows against other major currencies.

The future of Turkey’s economy is heavily dependent on growth in tourism, exports and foreign direct investments, all external components beyond the direct control of the current government. In a country with a long history of military coups and political violence, any government that fails to deliver the goods faces a major threat to its survival.

The disintegration of the Libyan State should be a further concern for European security policy. The country has become a focal point for the smuggling of African migrants and videos of human beings sold into slavery for a few hundred dollars have emerged. Last year, over 5000 people perished in the waters of the Mediterranean as they tried to make the perilous journey to Southern Europe.

A largely artificial creation, Libya has only existed as an independent state since 1951. It is composed of a variety of different clans and tribal confederations, which have far more in common with similar groups in neighboring countries than they do with each other. For example, those residing in the Western province of Tripolitania have a cultural heritage that is a part of the Maghreb world, while the Easterners in Cyrenaica have historically been an extension of Levantine and Egyptian culture.

Despite a UN-embargo on arms to Libya, weapons are flowing in freely. Russia, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have lent their financial and military support to General Khalifa Haftar’s rival government based in Tobruk while he fights against the UN-backed government in Tripoli. General Haftar, a former associate-turned rival of Muammar Gaddafi aims to enforce a military regime over the whole country. A variety of other factions, rebels and local militias are simultaneously taking part in the civil war.

As ancient rivalries in Libya are being revived, Europe may be forced to deal with a crisis similar to Syria. Libya’s proximity to Europe and its role as an important oil producer should serve as a further impetus for a political resolution of the conflict.

Nevertheless, for any negotiated deal to succeed, it must take into account the cultural diversity of the country. If the situation is not sufficiently addressed, the Russian Federation may fulfill one of its primary historical foreign policy goals by eventually acquiring a warm water port just across NATO waters.

While much of Europe has taken its post-Cold War security for granted, new threats from familiar sources loom on the horizon. The European Union’s emphasis on soft power has proven to be insufficient in preventing and managing conflicts at its borders. The response to Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine calls the commitment of Europe’s transatlantic partners into question. After decades of defense budget cuts, European nations have to modernize their military capabilities and to increase security cooperation.

The authoritarian forces, which threaten to undermine peace and security in Europe, only respect strength. It is time we became a lot stronger.


Editorial Policy: The contents of issues of MAKING SENSE are the sole responsibility of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sen Foundation. The director will select submitted contributions mainly on their added value for current debates, quality of reasoning and clarity of expression. Ilia Barboutev opens the series and will assist in collecting and editing other contributions. Advanced researchers and students are invited to present conclusions of their research which are relevant for public policy or contribute reflections on important policy questions. Submissions should not exceed 600 words. MAKING SENSE will be issued at least once a month and more frequently if the occasion arises.