The “Brexit” vote on 23 June and the military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 constitute two recent and simultaneous shocks to the European security system by compromising and complicating the close relations both countries have had respectively with the EU and NATO. As surprising, but not implausible outcomes of political trends in both countries, these two shocks must now help European political forces to promote innovative relations between Europe and both countries, centred on the maintenance of good dialogue and working cultures, especially in the security sphere.

In the last 25 years, the post-Cold War security system of Europe has survived through adapting and broadening the two pillars of Western solidarity and working in common: the Atlantic Alliance and the European integration process. These resisted the stress caused by the decomposition of the Soviet-imposed order in Central Europe and of the Yugoslav state created after the First World War. While NATO’s evolution centred around enlargement and, after September 11, 2001, the enhanced possibility of out-of-area interventions, European integration moved from an economic and trade community towards a stronger political and monetary Union, and also enlarged to include most of East-Central Europe. The past few years have added new tests to both NATO and the EU, some internal such as the economic and financial crisis, but also many external, such as the reassertion of Russian power and aggressiveness, and the chaos engendered in the Southeastern periphery of Europe by the Arab revolutions in North Africa and the Levant. While these developments already raised questions as to the adequate response that NATO and the EU could give to them, the summer of 2016 has seen, within a few weeks, two major shocks to the European security system. These shocks, whose consequences are long-term and thus still being measured and observed, are the British vote to exit the European Union and the attempted military coup in Turkey.

Naturally, a democratic referendum in Britain on membership of an international organization, and an attempted putsch by a fraction of the Turkish armed forces against the constitutional government are two very different events. However, both have the potential to destabilize not just important pillars of European security, but also the assumptions and concepts upon which a European security architecture has lain upon. This is why they call for careful assessment and observation, and they invite, over the course of time, a policy response carried by European political forces. The shocks show dysfunctions in the European security apparatus. The onus is on European political forces to understand the problems and to put forward solutions.

The relationship to Europe caused the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, weakened the successive cabinets of John Major in 1990-1997, divided the three governments of Tony Blair (1997-2007), even if the political expression of yearning for “Brexit” was nominally left to a fringe formation, the UK Independence Party. Britain opened its labour market to workers of the new Central European EU member states upon accession in 2005, but it wasn’t until the financial crisis in 2008-2009 that this immigration wave raised strong rejection among British working class populations hit by austerity measures.

Both events, despite their different nature, have elements in common. The first is their surprising character, defying expectations. The second is their revelation of underlying trends and political dynamics that have been at work for some time. The third is their challenge to the established institutions and policies, who will have to learn to function despite the changing role eventually played by the two countries. These two countries’ geographical position, close to the periphery, gives them not only a particular place in European security, but also enhances their geopolitical and geostrategic relevance to Europe. 

The surprising character of both events constitutes a first common denominator. The shock was confirmed by the immediate regional and global reactions, usually panicked ones. The second common trait, that of resulting of ongoing processes and dynamics, also appears to careful observers of both British and Turkish politics. Yet, up to their occurrence, conventional wisdom appeared to rule these events out, as improbable. It is this aspect of both being “worst-case scenarios” that explains the magnitude of their shocking effect.  

The British referendum had been called nearly three years prior, and before a general election which returned the Conservative Party to a comfortable majority. Referenda, however, are unusual in the British political system. The autumn 2014 consultation on Scotland’s independence indicated the degree of uncertainty, to the last moment, of their outcomes. As for the coup in Turkey, no such forceful attempt had occurred since 1980, excepting the pressure applied by the armed forces and other staunchly Kemalist institutions in 1997 to force the resignation, following due legal process, of an earlier Islamist government headed by Necmettin Erbakan. 

The outcome of the British referendum precipitated a crash of the financial markets wiping off 2 trillion dollars of value worldwide before resettling. It brought about the fall of the Cameron cabinet, a tense power struggle within the Conservatives, and a still ongoing leadership crisis in Labour. Strong demands from several Continental governments for an accelerated, nearly immediate enforcement of the withdrawal procedure by Britain also reflected the shock felt outside the UK. 

In Turkey, a confusing situation unfolded during the night of 15-16 July. There was disbelief that the armed forces, supposedly tamed by 13 years of governments under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could try to overthrow the constitutional government. This explains the very cautious reactions of Turkey’s European and US allies. The ongoing investigations, arrests and sackings extend way beyond those military units implicated, to civilian government departments, the media, and business, suspected of sympathizing with the putsch. This amplified the malaise which Turkey’s Western partners have continued to feel despite their relief at its failure. A fault line of mistrust has drawn itself between the Erdogan regime and these partners, and their delicate, albeit strategically necessary relationship is currently fractured. 

That both events were not only a possibility, but resulted from dynamics at work appears more clearly to experts in hindsight. No connoisseur of the British political scene could fail to sense the strength of the anti-European, not just Euro-skeptic, sentiment in large sections of British society, and its particular grip on popular media. The relationship to Europe caused the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, weakened the successive cabinets of John Major in 1990-1997, divided the three governments of Tony Blair (1997-2007), even if the political expression of yearning for “Brexit” was nominally left to a fringe formation, the UK Independence Party. Britain opened its labour market to workers of the new Central European EU member states upon accession in 2005, but it wasn’t until the financial crisis in 2008-2009 that this immigration wave raised strong rejection among British working class populations hit by austerity measures. Positive representations of British EU membership perhaps continued to dominate in the establishment of British politics, business and culture. Yet the undercurrent of resentment, and a more abstract belief in alternatives was widespread among various categories of the British electorate, so a “Brexit” victory was not viewed as impossible. The more surprising aspect remains in the still highly speculative vision of what British policy can achieve, and where it should aim, after this victory, despite the mathematical dominance of voters favouring “Brexit”. 

A complicated exit process opens between Britain and the EU. Much will depend on the enduring domestic political credibility and strength of the UK government, alongside its negotiating capacity and opportunities with the other 27 governments, but also with major non-European partners, the USA chiefly among them. 

As for Turkey, experts also noted that for all Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power, ten years prime minister, and even more as president, a non-negligible element of civilian opposition certainly remained. This was seen during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul two years past, and in the remarkable loss of the AK Party’s parliamentary majority during the summer of 2015. Following a dire economic and social situation at the dawn of the century, the Erdogan years saw a boom leading Turkey into the ranks of emerging powers and increased geostrategic leverage both in Europe and in the Middle East. Even opponents approved the curbing of military powers to the advantage of the civilian institutions. The government was also credited, until reversing course in 2015, for attempting a negotiated peace with the Kurds. Yet a markedly authoritarian turn, from 2013, also fuelled resentment of the Erdogan and AK party regime in some quarters. The Gezi Park protests and accusations of cronyism and corruption against the president’s entourage only accelerated the government’s clamp down on press freedoms. The fear of a conspiracy by the Gulenist movement, the AK Party’s erstwhile ally against the Kemalist military and social circles, led to the preventative establishment of lists of people to be targeted by the now ongoing purge of the civil service, the education and justice systems, the media and business. On the international front, the government’s “Neo-Ottoman” foreign policy posture reached an impasse with the stalemate of revolution in Syria, the rise of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, the new clout of Iran and the collapse of the AK Party’s ideological soul-mate, the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. The coup by a fraction of the military underscored the important loyalty of a majority of the forces, and the willingness of all civilian formations of Turkish politics to resist a military junta. It appears in retrospect as the more improbable scenario among plausible attempts by opposition forces to curtail president Erdogan. 

Both the British and Turkish events challenge established and institutionalized policies of the European political and security architecture, in today’s tense international context, which the establishment of an ISIS territorial entity in the summer of 2014, coinciding with the outbreak of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, have already tested. What common lessons can be drawn at this stage from both developments by European decision-makers, and what potential responses can be carried by European political forces, the conservatives in particular?

A complicated exit process opens between Britain and the EU. Much will depend on the enduring domestic political credibility and strength of the UK government, alongside its negotiating capacity and opportunities with the other 27 governments, but also with major non-European partners, the USA chiefly among them. Arguably, the choice for “Brexit” is not supposed to weaken Britain internally or externally; which is why many advocate a minimalist withdrawal that preserves the most advantages, including a cooperative working culture with continental partners, access to their goods and services markets, remaining part of the European trade block on the global scale, and partnership in security matters, whether in the military, anti-terrorist or law enforcement domains. The UK’s potential and contribution in the latter issue is its strongest card to play as a substitution for EU membership. Britain has a vested interest in maintaining a strong NATO but also a strong European defence pillar, which needs reinforcement, not to alleviate the effects of Brexit, but because of the tensions in Europe’s security perimeter and destabilization attempts made East and South of the region. European conservative parties should be well geared to promote a strong collective defence. It is important within NATO but also within the European Security and Defence Policy, because they are both collective in nature, and provide the day-to-day collaborative working cultures that make a difference. Security and defence policies are areas in which European conservatives, despite their regard for national sovereignty, can argue that it does not equate with isolationism. Rather, it delivers innovative and collaborative solutions to the common problem of keeping European people safe and prosperous. 

Turkey’s evolution is, like the Brexit negotiations, a script still in writing. The consolidation of president Erdogan’s personal power is likely, but how further the purge and repression amplify is difficult to determine. This will affect future relations between Turkey, Europe and NATO. Normalizing Turkish-Russian relations can be a stabilising factor, if it does not lead Turkey to enter an anti-Western axis with Moscow and Beijing. ­­A high-­­quality, conditional dialogue and working relationship needs to be preserved with Turkey, with a long-term vision in mind, as is the case for future British-European relations. NATO is the existing channel through which the security and defence dimensions are broached, but there is also a case for the future EU-Turkey relationship. Turkish membership of the EU is now recognized as an improbable outcome. This puts all the more onus on the UK, and, especially, on conservative forces, to achieve a formula of partner relations that could inspire the future inclusive, but not fully integrated, European-Turkish partnership. To make it a more realistic and attractive option than the vague and ill-defined one, promoted up to now by those opposed to Turkey’s full accession to the EU. Keeping dialogue flowing could also involve, virtuously, other Turkish parties beyond the AK, soliciting their input and participation. European conservatives and others must keep open many channels of discussion with Ankara towards this effect, exploit existing networks of dialogue and cooperation, all the while trying to keep Turkish politics an inclusive, multiparty system.

With their expertise in the matter, European conservative political parties can play a crucial role: not only in directing their domestic audiences towards these imperatives, but in implementing these policies at the international level in Europe and further, ensuring that the better outcome eventually surfaces from these two turbulent events.

The two shocks to the European security system in the summer of 2016, compromising Britain’s relationship with the EU on one hand, and Turkey’s with both Europe and NATO on the other, need not be fatal. On the contrary, they must stimulate European leaders and politicians, as well as their transatlantic partners, towards innovative thinking and constructive proposals.  The strategic aim ought to preserve and improve dialogue and cooperative structures, rather than scuppering them. With their expertise in the matter, European conservative political parties can play a crucial role: not only in directing their domestic audiences towards these imperatives, but in implementing these policies at the international level in Europe and further, ensuring that the better outcome eventually surfaces from these two turbulent events.