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Losing Turkey

Friday 7 September 2007, by Hugh Pope

When a half-century of convergence between Turkey and the European Union last floundered a decade ago, the Turks regrouped and forged forward and the EU met them halfway. The result was a revolutionary period of reform in Turkey. Last month, grateful for their most fruitful period of political stability in many years, the Turkish electorate gave a resounding 46.7% vote of confidence to the ruling, pro-reform AK Party.

- Hugh Pope is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, which has just published a report on Turkey and the EU. Based in Istanbul for 20 years, he is author most recently of “Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World” (Overlook Duckworth, 2005)

Now it is Europe’s turn to take a stand. Instead it is stumbling: finding enlargement unfashionable, fearing immigration and mistaking some nonintegrated Turks within the EU for Turkey itself. Governments in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands are trying to short-change Turkey with the new idea of a “privileged partnership,” not the membership promised repeatedly since 1963.

There is no need for Europe to fear Turkey’s membership goal. The Turks themselves acknowledge the country is far from ready; the earliest date for joining the EU is a decade away. Turkey has to fulfill the stiffest conditions applied to any candidate. Any EU government can veto its membership, and the French people can vote it down in a referendum. If and when Turkey becomes acceptable to the EU, the Turks, attached to their sovereignty, make no secret that they too may think hard about the last step.

Nor is there cause to fear the Turks’ mostly pragmatic take on Islam. The AKP’s affable foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, almost certain to be elected president by parliament this month, has highlighted his vow to preserve the secularism of Turkey’s political system. Mr. Gül’s wife wears the urban-chic headscarf of Turkey’s new Muslim conservatives, but in time this symbol is likely to become as unremarkable as the one worn by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife, which was equally controversial when he became prime minister four years ago. The secularist mass demonstrations this April and May showed that Turkey’s still-powerful Kemalist establishment and vigilant society will be the first to block any real attempt to install a theocratic regime.

Europeans should remember that the EU goal provided the stimulus and motivation for the golden age of Turkish reform in 1999-2005. Ironically, this brought progress in the very same domains that right-wing critics in Europe traditionally cite as reasons why Turkey cannot become a member. The economy, governance and religious and civil liberties have all improved during those years. Additionally, the advances visibly benefited European commercial and strategic interests.

Turkey’s average annual economic growth over the last five years was 7.5%, per capita income has doubled since 2003 and, especially in the last two years, foreign investment has skyrocketed. European companies, especially from Germany, have led the way in opening superstores and taking over banks, food companies and insurance concerns. Since the 1995 customs union with Europe, Turkey’s overall trade volume has quadrupled, half of which is trade with the EU.

The political trust generated by this process had knock-on effects for European security. Turkey typically adopts most of Europe’s common foreign and security policy. Turkish troops, commanders and civilian administrators have played leading roles in Afghanistan. The airlifting of French forces to Congo would have taken far longer without the offer of Turkish air transport. Turkey volunteered troops for the UN mission in Lebanon and is continuing its long and varied support of Western missions in the former Yugoslavia. Straddling routes that the EU says may one day transport 15% of Europe’s oil and gas supply, it is already playing a role in enhancing European energy security.

EU reforms helped to transform and democratize Turkish society, illustrating the soft power of the EU to calm its rougher southeastern borderlands. New penal and civil codes, nine packages of legal reforms and a raft of other laws constituted a modernization unprecedented in Turkish legislative history. Increasing European legal oversight brought a period of calm in the long-running ethnic Kurdish insurgency. In 2004, EU-Turkish rapprochement even brought a fleeting possibility of solving the frozen conflict on Cyprus. Those who believe Cyprus remains an insuperable obstacle should remember that the EU was instrumental in easing the bitterness between Turkey and Greece whose dispute was once thought unbridgeable.

Since 2005, however, the EU’s loss of nerve, driven by domestic politics, mistakes on all sides over Cyprus and misplaced prejudices about Turkey’s progressive Islam, has put the process under pressure. The U.S.-led war in Iraq has done even more to rouse anti-Western feelings in Turkey. These have triggered jarring actions by nationalist Turkish prosecutors, who harassed intellectuals, and authoritarian generals, who fanned political tensions this year as they warned of intervention if they felt the republic’s secularist heritage was at risk. This in turn provoked new European criticism.

Turkish politicians are now avoiding pro-EU stances. The military has slowed purchases from Europe; French companies, in particular, have suffered losses. Religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey have come under renewed pressure. Rows over Cyprus are increasingly damaging EU and NATO diplomacy. Ankara is questioning its contributions to the new European defense structure and showing signs of a go-it-alone attitude in military matters, particularly toward northern Iraq, where Kurdish rebels from Turkey have bases. Behind closed doors, the idea of being strategically alone in a rough neighborhood is making some in Ankara weigh up whether Turkey, too, should pursue a nuclear option.

It is not too late to reverse this trend. Despite the increasingly negative atmosphere since 2005, technical work on EU reforms continues. In April, the AK Party drew up the country’s most intensively researched action plan for convergence toward EU standards. Prime Minister Erdogan did not highlight his pro-EU credentials in the election campaign, but neither did he jump on the neonationalist bandwagon that has developed in reaction to the EU disappointments. In his first speech after the election victory, he vowed to use his strong new mandate to relaunch the EU reforms.

To help that happen, Europe has to reach out, seriously and sincerely, with the goal of membership firmly in place. Palliatives like a “privileged partnership” or “Mediterranean Union” cannot gain the traction the EU needs with Turkey. And the EU-Turkey accession process is not, as one French politician has portrayed it, a breakable flirtation or engagement. Like two towns that have grown into each other, Turkey and Europe, once distinct, now overlap to an extent that cannot be undone.

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Source : The Wall Street Journal (USA), 20 August 2007

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