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EU needs Turkey more than ever before

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • March 07, 2011

    EU accession is a difficult and time consuming process where the applicant country must bring its domestic and foreign policies in line with the European Union Charter. However, once launched, accession negotiations for any country have invariably led to full membership. Hence Turkish hopes were revived when in December 1999 the European Council revived accession talks with Turkey, which had stalled following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the military coup of 1980. Progress was soon recorded in the economic, democratic and foreign policy spheres. Turkey’s moves to seek a rapprochement with Armenia and to resolve the Cyprus deadlock had been appreciated by EU member states. Perceptions that Turkey was adhering to the rule of law, initiating a reconciliation process with the Kurds and implementing a multidimensional foreign policy characterized by the principle of “zero problems” with neighbours – all contributed to optimism about Turkey’s prospects for EU membership.

    For the EU, Turkey’s admission seemed to be beneficial. Inclusion of the 800,000-strong Turkish army—Europe’s largest— would have strengthened the EU’s defence capabilities. Integrating a Muslim State would have demonstrated a commitment to reach out to the Islamic world. Turkey’s good economic performance when most of the EU was racked by economic crisis also counted in its favour.

    However, the accession negotiations seem to have again reached a stalemate, with early membership prospects appearing bleak. Turkey is still not perceived as having attained the rigorous standards expected of a EU member. With immigration a sensitive issue, the prospect of granting freedom of movement to Turkish workers is a major stumbling block. Cyprus has also contributed to the prevailing deadlock. Moreover, Turkey’s Muslim identity does not go down too well with European states. Finally, some countries believe that admitting Turkey would tilt the balance of power away from the existing “core”.

    Turkey had also been purportedly part of EU plans to diversify energy imports, reduce dependence on Russia and sustain the security of energy supplies. Thus the US-backed Nabucco pipeline was aimed at transporting gas from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe, bypassing both Russia and Ukraine. But the project is now being criticized as uneconomic because there is no guarantee of gas supplies. Concerns have also been raised about security as the pipeline will cross unstable areas of Turkey's South East region and the South Caucasus. So the energy issue may no longer be an important factor in the membership negotiations. In any case, with or without membership, Turkey will find it profitable to sell energy supplies to western markets.

    Recent Developments

    There has been intense debate in Turkey on the reforms required to conform to EU membership criteria in view of the clear EU reluctance to admit Turkey. Turkey has rejected a Franco-German proposal for a ‘special or privileged membership’ with labour safeguards as discriminatory and against its national interest. Today, there is a perception within Turkey that the EU needs it more than Turkey needs the EU.

    For one, Turkey has emerged from the global financial crisis in relatively better shape. Today, it is one of the best performing economies in the region with six per cent growth in 2010.1 Moreover, with EU accession talks stalled, Turkey is beginning to discover its own voice on the global stage by playing a key role in mediating between Bosnia and Serbia, paving the way for reconciliation between bitter enemies. Turkey’s high profile diplomacy has also witnessed the country reaching out to China, Syria and Iran. China has established a strategic relationship with Turkey. This has led to a boost in economic and military ties including joint military exercises - the first time that China has conducted joint military exercises with a major NATO ally. The other notable initiative was the Turkey-Brazil attempt in 2010 to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis and their joint acknowledgement of Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Again, it was Turkey’s initiative in 2010 which led to the creation of a visa-free zone linking Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria2 and acceptance of Turkey’s emerging role in the region. These are indications of Turkey seeking new responsibility in some of the world’s conflict regions.

    At a time when democratic revolutions are sweeping across the Middle East, many pundits have started discussing the Turkish model as a way forward for the Arab countries. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan supported the democratic movement in Egypt, thus considerably raising his profile in the region.

    Thus, Turkey seems to be turning away from the EU to acquire wider options in its neighbourhood and the world. But failure in the membership negotiations will etch in the global consciousness the notion that Europe will remain a 'Christian Club'. It will also send a signal that no amount of modernisation and efforts to consolidate secularism will help an Islamic country to qualify for EU membership. Perhaps it would be best for both sides to drop the charade of accession talks and recognise that they can be good partners without EU membership for Turkey. Turkey, with its dynamic demographics and growing political and economic stature, will emerge in a stronger position as an independent partner with which all countries in the region will seek mutually beneficial partnership.

    Notwithstanding this, it will be in Turkey’s interest to deepen its modernisation and democratisation drive and engage in an intensive political and civil society dialogue to remove the misconceptions of the European public. Opening the Halki Seminary could represent a significant move in terms of recognizing the rights of Christian minorities, a topic which is bound to raise passions in Europe. There has been a turnaround in the opinion of some of Turkey’s staunch anti-EU parties like the Kemalist CHP which have now shown an interest in joining the European Union. It can be hoped that they will put pressure on the party in power to implement further reforms in line with the EU charter. But will Turkey’s current leadership follow a foreign policy that does not diverge too widely from that of the European Union?

    Turkey occupies a unique geopolitical position, straddling two continents, underlining the need for Turkey and the EU to work together. They can be powerful partners and a force for peace and democratisation if the necessary vision and reforms are implemented by both sides.