Running Out of Reasons to Say “No” to Turkey

Having inducted ten new members into in May, the European Union (EU) will soon consider Turkey’s case. The EU first granted the candidacy in December 1999, and Turkey immediately set out to meet the accession criteria. In 2002, however, the EU responded to Turkey’s concerted reforms by delaying a decision for two more years. The membership debate commenced within the last six months, leaving the EU insufficient time to make a well informed decision, according to this piece in The Daily Star. Europeans regard Turkey as important for both the stabilization of Iraq and in averting a religion-based clash of civilizations; denying its membership may not be a viable or likely option. – YaleGlobal

Running Out of Reasons to Say "No" to Turkey

Philip Robins
Friday, September 24, 2004

For those harboring the illusion that the European Union can play a decisive role in the future of the Middle East, whether in Palestine or in Iraq, let them consider the case of Turkey. With the decision on whether Ankara should receive a date for the commencement of accession negotiations just three months away, the European Union's attitude towards its southeasterly neighbor continues to be characterized by expediency, muddle and short-termism.

For the last five years the EU has been sleepwalking into a closer relationship with Turkey. This began at the Helsinki summit in December 1999, when the EU took the decision to bestow candidate status upon Turkey. The decision was an expedient one, taken by harassed politicians whose main aim was to work their way quickly through a crowded agenda. It offered Ankara the hope that it was "destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria as applied to other candidate States."

In adopting such a policy, the decision-makers at Helsinki seemed to have achieved a win-win outcome. They had succeeded in "managing" Turkey, an awkward state with a persistent aspiration to join the EU and a festering resentment at having been passed over by the former communist states of Eastern Europe. At the same time, it mattered little whether Turkey met the political criteria for membership: if it did not, that was a Turkish responsibility; if it did, then the EU politicians would be long out of office before having to justify to European public opinion Turkey's actual impending membership.

With its European destiny at last in its own hands, the Turks set about meeting the political criteria with gusto. Turkey did so on the basis of a dominant majority. The generals gave the green light to European-oriented reform, which was begun under the predominantly secular government led by Bulent Ecevit. It was carried on after the November 2002 general election with single-minded conviction by the new converts to European standards: the post-Islamist government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Reform succeeded reform: the death penalty was axed; the role of the military in politics was curbed; limited broadcasting in non-Turkish languages, including Kurdish, was allowed using state organizations.

The EU responded to this concerted, integrated action by asking for more time. The Copenhagen summit of 2002 recognized the strides forward that Turkey had made, but insisted on more changes and tangible proof of implementation. Such a position was fair enough, as Ankara had been good at passing laws in the past that remained unimplemented or were neutralized by countervailing legislation. The Europeans decided to wait for two more years.

It is only in the last six months or so of this period that any sort of debate has started to emerge about future relations between the EU and Turkey. The Dutch presidency, installed for the second half of 2004, addressed the issue in advance, but only within elite circles. Right-of-center political parties in France and Germany focused on the issue, too, but largely with hostility, in the hope it would be a vote-winner in the lead-up to the European elections last June. European think tanks once again showed themselves to be lagging behind, rather than at the forefront, of policy developments; some of Europe's great and the good have belatedly entered the fray. Absent from all of this was substantive discussion on the matter involving civil society, never mind European public opinion at large.

The outcome has been a mess. Europeans are now beginning to debate whether it is conceivable that Turkey should be allowed into the EU, even though the principle of eligibility was unequivocally established at the Luxembourg summit in 1997. Moreover, discussions are now often couched in terms of whether the EU should allow Turkey to proceed, even though Helsinki very much put the ball in Ankara's court.

Finally, having sanctimoniously protested ad nauseam that EU membership criteria are objective and therefore apply to all, the skeptics have only recently, it seems, woken up to the size of Turkey; if Poland has proved difficult for the EU to digest in terms of demography and because of its agrarian-based economy, how much greater will Turkey be in this regard?

All of this belated activity has been taking place when it is quite clear that insufficient time exists to take a widely based, considered and well-informed decision on Turkey's future relations with the EU. There are, then, three decisions available to the EU as the December summit looms, all of them in various ways unsatisfactory and all of them political.

First, the EU can agree to the commencement of accession negotiations, naming a date most likely in May or June next year. As in 1999, it would be a case of power without responsibility. EU political leaders could make such a move safe in the knowledge that they would not have to take the ultimate decision, it being widely predicted that a decade or more would be required to complete those negotiations.

Second, the EU summit can simply state that Turkey has not met the political criteria demanded of it, and, therefore, that accession negotiations cannot begin. However, this "shutting the door in the face" option is most unlikely. It would involve an abandonment of the "manage Turkey" strategy, with inevitably unforeseen consequences, and this at a time when Turkey is regarded as important by Europeans both in terms of the long term stabilization of Iraq and in averting a religion-based "clash of civilizations."

Third, the EU summit can look for a middle course. The trouble here is that another "date for a date," or some such approach, may look like a compromise, but unlike Copenhagen in 2002 it would no longer be regarded as fair. At best, it would only delay a decision based on either the first or the second option, while also squandering Turkish reformist goodwill.

Of the three possibilities, I would place my money on the first. As one senior European was recently heard to exclaim out loud in exasperation, Europe is running out of reasons to say "no" to Turkey.

Philip Robins is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St. Antony’s College. His “Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War” (Hurst & University of Washington Press) was published last year. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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