Turkey's long journey to joining the European Union has hit another speed bump. On Tuesday, the European Union announced it would suspend talks with the Turkish government on further steps towards integrating the majority-Muslim state into Europe. The decision comes in response to calls from Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands to delay negotiations in light of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's violent crackdown on largely peaceful protesters in Gezi Park and Taksim Square earlier this month.
EU leaders justified the decision by saying starting a new round of talks so soon after the Turkish government acted in a manner incongruous with European standards for how to handle its citizens' right to free speech and peaceful protest would be creating a "double-standard". While this line of thinking has its merits, the European Union must be careful not to let recent events obscure the fact that Turkey's eventual membership would be of great benefit for Europeans and the Turkish people alike.
As Javier Solana, the former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, argued back in 2011, Turkey and the EU need each other. The EU now accounts for over 75% of foreign direct investment in Turkey and roughly half its exports and inward tourism. Conversely, Europe relies on Turkey for its energy security, as much of its oil and natural gas coming from Central Asia and the Middle East is transported through Turkey. Additionally, integrating Turkey into the European economy would open up a rapidly expanding Turkish market to European businesses, significantly improving Europe's chances of emerging from its worst recession in decades.
Beyond the economic advantages of bringing Europe and Turkey closer together, the EU should not ignore the potential of Turkey's integration into the EU to help ensure Turkey does not become another Middle Eastern country dominated by Islamism at the expense of liberalism. While popular, democratic support for Erdogan's government has grown steadily over the past decade, the country has drifted further from its secular, liberal ideal of government towards a more authoritarian and religious interpretation of government's role in society. As Ian Buruma points out, "Higher visibility for Islam is the inevitable result of more democracy in Muslim-majority countries. How to stop this from killing liberalism is the most important question facing people in the Middle East." European integration would go a long way to guaranteeing religious minorities in Turkey don't see their rights further eroded.
26 years after the Turkish government first applied for accession into the European Union, anti-government protests and Prime Minister Erdogan's harsh response are threatening to derail talks just as both sides looked to be making meaningful progress. Turkey's eventual inclusion in the European Union makes too much sense for both parties for it not to happen eventually. The longer talks drag on, however, the greater the risk of one of both sides deciding the political pain isn't worth the potential benefits. The only losers if this were to be the end result of the latest diplomatic spat would be the citizens of both Europe and Turkey who hope for a more stable, peaceful, and economically prosperous future.