The Dating Game

The Dating Game

Mini Teaser: American is playing matchmaker to Turkey and the EU. It had better work. A broken engagement could mean a clash of civilizations.

by Author(s): Zeyno Baran

This year is make-or-break for Turkish-EU relations. After forty years of being kept at arm's length--albeit with promises of an eventual full embrace--Turkey wants the EU to commit to beginning accession talks at its December summit. All the parties--Ankara, Brussels and Washington--know the deadline and the issues that need to be resolved for this to happen. But if at the end of this year Turkey does not receive a date to commence negotiations, the consequences could be severe. It could spell the end of the reform process in Turkey, severely damage the cohesion of the transatlantic alliance, and seriously jeopardize plans to implement the generational transformation of the Greater Middle East.

Moving Goalposts

Turkey is understandably mistrustful of European Union pronouncements about "eventual" membership. Ever since the Ankara Agreement in 1963, when France's President Charles de Gaulle told the Turks that they deserved to join the EU queue, Turkey has been "next in line" to join Europe--even when other states have jumped ahead of them. The great fear is that once the Union increases its size to 25 member-states in 2004, enthusiasm for admitting further members will wane. Realistically, this could be the last round of enlargement for many years to come. Does Turkey deserve to wait another ten or 15 years to enter Europe together with, say, Albania and Bosnia?

The initial excitement over Turkey's Customs Union with the EU in 1995 was followed with a serious disappointment at the eu's 1997 Luxembourg summit, when Turkey was not given candidate status. In reaction to this perceived snub, Turkey cut off political dialogue with Brussels. Under strong pressure from the United States, and in recognition of Turkey's own progress in implementing reforms, Turkey was finally given candidate status at the 1999 Helsinki summit and promised that, once it met the so-called Copenhagen criteria, membership talks would commence.1

After assessing Turkey's progress, the conclusion reached at the December 2002 Copenhagen summit was:

"If the European Council in December 2004, on the basis of a report and a recommendation from the Commission, decides that Turkey fulfills the Copenhagen political criteria, the European Union will open accession negotiations with Turkey without delay."

Turkey, upset at receiving an unclear date, felt once more that the EU had snubbed them--despite the best efforts of the United States to put a positive spin on the declaration by interpreting "without delay" to mean that accession talks would commence in early 2005.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to embark on a fresh and ambitious reform program to remove any doubt that Turkey would be in compliance with the Copenhagen criteria.2 The Erdogan government's efforts were highly praised by many European leaders; during his January 2004 visit to Ankara, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, declared, "We stand by Turkey since it has achieved considerable progress" in its bid for full EU membership.

Yet many Turks who believed that their country was getting closer to Europe now feel that the EU, at its December 2003 Brussels summit, once again moved the goalposts. While recognizing Turkey's push to reform its institutions to European standards, the EU, for the first time, explicitly linked Turkey's candidacy to a successful Cyprus settlement. Indeed, just as Turkey was making progress in political and economic reform, many Turks perceived that the EU was now turning to the Cyprus issue to provide an excuse for keeping Turkey out of the Union.

Encouragingly, there is now momentum for a successful settlement of the Cypriot question. Turkey is serious about seeing this problem resolved before May 1 (when Cyprus is set to enter the EU). Turkey has accepted the proposals advanced by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; not only will the Annan Plan serve as the basis for a final settlement, Turkey has agreed that if the Greek and Turkish Cypriots cannot resolve outstanding issues by a certain date, Turkey will negotiate directly with Greece in an attempt to reach a resolution. Should Athens and Ankara, in turn, fail to reach consensus, they will accept whatever the Secretary-General proposes to "fill in the blanks."

By helping to facilitate a Cyprus solution, the EU will find it more difficult to resist giving Turkey a date to start accession talks with Ankara. Even if the Annan Plan is ultimately rejected by either Cypriot party in the referenda scheduled for April, Turkey will have acted in good faith to solve the division of the island and can no longer be considered an obstacle for a solution. But if the window of opportunity is lost, there may never be another chance for such high-level and intense international engagement.

The No-Date Worst-Case Scenario

Commenting on Russian-American relations in the Winter 2003/04 issue of The National Interest, Dimitri K. Simes rhetorically asked,

"What perverse logic would lead one to believe that America can treat [Vladimir] Putin as an opponent . . . while expecting the Kremlin to accommodate American priorities?"

The same logic could be applied to Turkey. In a post-9/11 and post-Saddam era, Turkey has become the new frontline state for American and EU security interests in a region extending from the Middle East and North Africa to the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet how can continued Turkish cooperation in these matters of vital national interest be assured if Turkey's own European aspirations are continuously denied?

Some argue that the EU can continue to put Turkey off with little or no consequences, since "Turkey has nowhere else to go but Europe." But a fruitful, cooperative relationship cannot be built on such a foundation. For example, a rebuffed Turkey might abolish its Customs Union with the EU. Since its activation in 1996, Turkey has been able to export to the EU as if it were a member. Abolishing or limiting the Customs Union is still a favorite topic for Turkey's nationalists and industrialists, who suffer from competitive, higher quality and cheaper EU imports. Playing on popular fears and momentary anger, these groups could lobby successfully to withdraw from the Customs Union. The Turks might even go so far as to impose a limited trade embargo on European goods.

On top of that, strained relations between Europe and Turkey might undermine Europe's entire policy of engagement toward the Greater Middle East. The eu's "Barcelona Process"--launched in 1995 to extend the European zone of peace and prosperity across the Mediterranean to encompass the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Near East--cannot succeed without active Turkish participation. Germany's Foreign Minister Fischer noted in Munich in February 2004 that Turkey's membership in the Union was essential for the future of Europe's Middle East policy, including its strategic engagement with Iran and efforts to secure a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

A Turkey frustrated in its European aspirations would also have little incentive for carrying the Atlantic community's water in places like the Caucasus and Central Asia. There would also be little enthusiasm for Turkey to become nothing more than a resource annex to Europe. From America's perspective, the whole premise of the East-West energy corridor--having Turkey serve as the primary conduit for Caspian oil and gas to reach Western markets--rests on the assumption that Europe views a fully-integrated Turkey as indispensable to its own energy security. But the EU does not quite see it that way.

There are those who argue that, even if there is a short-term disruption in Turkey's relations with the West, eventually cooler heads would prevail, with Ankara returning to the reform path in the hopes of securing a date from Europe.

But such a Turkey would be like a ship adrift without an anchor. Turkey can play a critical role in the Greater Middle East only if it does not lose hope in Europe. If it becomes clear that Europe has turned its back on Turkey, its motivation to continue the reform process will be lost and we could witness Turkey spiral downward and seek the embrace of others.

The key signals are economic. So far, investors have bet that Turkey's economy will continue its robust growth as the EU-required reforms advance. If Turkey is denied the European carrot, however, Turkish nationalists who want to retreat from reforms will gain in strength. This could undermine the success of the economic reform program, thus jeopardizing the IMF's $30 billion Turkish investment. If the Turkish euroskeptics prevail, market confidence would suffer and the Turkish lira would, in all probability, drop precipitously. This would produce a banking and market crisis such as the one Turkey only narrowly avoided when the United States announced an $8.5 billion loan package before the Iraq War. The mere announcement of such a package calmed fears and reassured investors. Without the EU, Turkey would need the American anchor more than ever (although it must be said that Turkey still has not accepted the money, as of late February, on account of the conditionality attached to it, namely that Turkey guarantee it will not enter northern Iraq).

Should the EU not begin accession talks this December, Turkey's political stability would be undermined as well. Erdogan's AKP government is able to push through democratic changes mainly because of the prospect of joining the EU. At each significant turn, Turkey's old guard is resisting the changes that would make the country more democratic and more liberal. There are also constant rumblings in the strong secular elements of the military and within Kemalist circles (mainly in the universities, the state bureaucracy and the leading opposition party) that the AKP may have a "hidden Islamist agenda." They fear that the pro-Europe reforms will leave Turkey increasingly vulnerable, yet remain silent for the moment because of the perceived benefits of joining Europe. However, if Europe fails to give Turkey a date, these forces would be in a position to raise their forceful voices, perhaps loudly enough to oust the government.

Essay Types: Essay