A slap in the face for Turkey could sting EU
A slap in the face for Turkey could sting EU
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

A slap in the face for Turkey could sting EU

With France’s blocking of a key negotiating chapter with Turkey in June and its plan to convene experts this autumn to define a European frontier that it believes should exclude Turkey, the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy is making good on its electoral promise to dilute Ankara’s half-century-old goal of membership of the Europe Union.

Paris aims to downgrade Turkey’s possible membership to ‘privileged partnership’. Even though poll results do not show that European public disillusionment with enlargement is an anti-Turkey position per se, Paris believes it speaks for a majority of the EU27 that is officially for but is privately against the continuation of the negotiation process. Certainly, Germany’s Christian Democrats, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg would currently agree. And since 2005, the all-Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus has allowed little progress in the EU for Turkey until Ankara accepts its demand to be recognised as the sole legitimate government on the divided island.

Even though the UK, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Italy and Germany’s Social Democrats are stalwart supporters of a membership anchor for EU negotiations with Turkey – a process that will last a decade or more, mainly because the average income of the 74 million Turks is less than half that in the EU – the scene is set for a rocky season for Turkey.

Paradoxically, Europe’s fatigue comes just as Turkey is ready for a new leap forward. Smooth July elections for parliament re-elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an’s AK Party with a striking 46.7%of the vote. AKP’s pro-EU, pro-reform capacity has been further strengthened by the election of the former foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, as president.

In practice, in the absence of any EU will to reach out to Turkey, the golden era of EU-Turkey convergence between 1999 and 2005 is set to recede further.

Regardless of who is responsible for this – and all sides are to blame for mistimings and bad decisions over Cyprus – several negative trends will worsen.

In Turkey, the foundering EU accession process and the US-led war in neighbouring Iraq has triggered a new nationalist isolationism. This is propping up the vote for Turkey’s conservative nationalist parties, and forcing pro-EU politicians and reformers to run for cover. Religious minorities and intellectuals are coming under new pressure.

Diplomatically, this is hitting EU-NATO dialogue, especially European Security and Defence Policy projects, already set back by tit-for-tat arguments between Turkey and Cyprus.

European, particularly French, companies are being avoided in defence contracts, notably in the Eurofighter project. Divisions are deepening again in the dispute over a solution to the frozen Cyprus conflict. The vicious circle has worsened as Turkey gives in to the temptation of emotional all-or-nothing negotiating tactics on matters great and small.

Yet aside from the EU and its agencies, Turkey is a full member of almost all major European organisations. Just as in the Cold War, Turkey proved a stalwart ally of EU policy, giving critical military support in peacekeeping missions to Afghanistan, Congo, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. Ironically, the achievements of the EU reform years – better governance, rafts of new laws, better human rights, wider religious freedoms, a calming of the Kurdish conflict, a doubling of per capita income, peace and co-operation with Greece and a new ‘one step ahead’ policy on Cyprus – are exactly what the EU’s Turkey sceptics say they want to see.

Given this history, and the way Turkey’s AKP is now ready and empowered to relaunch the pro-EU reform process, giving in to populist European pressures to downgrade Turkey’s EU ambition to ‘privileged partnership’ would amount to a discriminatory slap in the face. Turks will take it as more evidence that the West cannot conceive of equality with Muslims. The wider Islamic world, which is closely following EU treatment of what is arguably the most democratic, secular and successful Muslim state, will draw the same conclusion.

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