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Turkey's two directions
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 04 - 2009

Turkey's efforts towards EU accession continue to be stymied, in turn pushing Ankara to engage its southern sphere, writes Mustafa El-Labbad*
Turkey's EU candidacy has once again topped the agenda of the EU executive branch. On 21 April in Prague, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan met with his Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg, in his capacity as serving EU president to discuss progress on Turkey's accession. But apart from handshakes and smiles and commemorative photographs, the gap between the two sides appears as difficult to bridge as ever, 22 years since Turkey first applied for EU membership. Naturally, Ankara will keep trying and will probably continue to check its anger against European stubbornness; however, in the meantime it will probably set its sights on closer involvement in the Middle East and the Caucasus.
While Turkey might be geographically poised to be an active player in all directions, it does not have the superpower resources to operate on all sides at once. Therefore, decision-makers in Ankara will have to hone in on those areas that will offer the most opportunities for extending their country's influence and reaping the greatest political and strategic benefits. Thus, European intransigence in the EU accession negotiations with Turkey will, wittingly or unwittingly, drive the Middle East and central Asia higher and higher on Ankara's priorities, especially in view of the American protective wing that Obama extended during his recent visit to Turkey.
Turkey officially applied for EU membership in 1987, at a time when the organisation was still known as the European Common Market. The application was turned down on the grounds of the weak state of the Turkish economy as well as the Greek veto stemming from the Turkish-Greek dispute over Cyprus. Since then, Ankara has indefatigably continued to press for membership, instituting numerous reforms at home and entering into endless rounds of arduous and protracted negotiations. Still, opponents to its accession remain stubbornly blind to the enormous evolution in Turkey's strategic and political potential, and continue to scorn it as a perpetual supplicant that must forever be shooed away from the door. Perhaps others look askance at Ankara's alliance with Washington, which they believe would take priority over its allegiance to the EU should it be granted admission. Such an attitude is naturally guaranteed to push the US and Turkey closer together and ultimately to reduce the EU's ability to influence Ankara's policy.
Of course, not all EU members share such attitudes. Britain and Sweden head the list of countries that do favour Turkey's accession, which they maintain would be a major asset to the EU. Turkey's considerable political, economic and military weight would greatly enhance the EU's international leverage. In addition, there is the vital geo-strategic dimension that Turkey offers as a gateway to the oil and gas rich regions of Central Asia and the Middle East, as a guarantor of Europe's southern boundaries in the Aegean and as the guardian of the Bosphorus connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.
Contrary to what is widely believed in this part of the world, the religious difference is not a major factor for opponents to Turkish accession. Rather, what concerns them is another demographic factor. Because of its large population, Turkey would occupy a large enough bloc of seats in the European parliament to give it a voting power second only to Germany. Moreover, at current rates of population growth, Turkey would outweigh even Germany in the European parliament by 2020. It is primarily for this reason that Germany opposes Turkey's accession, even if its politicians -- from the right in particular -- excel at concealing this fact behind the pretext of "cultural differences" which blatantly alludes to Turkey's Islamic affiliation.
France, which currently has the second largest voting bloc in the EU, opposes Turkish membership for the same demographic reason: Turkey's voting power would surpass its own. In addition to the "cultural differences" argument, the French came up with another reason for opposing Turkey's admission. A favourite with former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, it went that if the EU admitted Turkey, of which only 2.5 per cent of its territory is located in Europe, it would also have to admit Morocco!
Although the EU has set a deadline for the accession of Croatia, which only applied for admission a few years ago, it has so far refused to do so for Turkey. The EU has stringent membership requirements for all. The "Turkish file" covers 35 conditions that the country needs to meet in such areas as the economy, fiscal transparency, foreign and domestic policy, government structures, and human and civil rights. Over the past years, Turkey has worked assiduously to come up to the required standards, going so far as to break a number of political taboos well before membership was in reach, contrary to the Turkish saying, "Don't roll up your trousers until you see the sea."
On the "Cyprus question", long argued as a reason to oppose Turkey's EU membership, Ankara brought itself to support the UN proposing Cyprus's admission into the EU as a unified country. Turkey exerted no small amount of pressure on the Cypriot Turks to vote in favour of unity in the referendum on this issue, whereas Cypriot Greeks voted against it.
Economically, Turkey has made enormous strides in the past few years. Since the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, it reined in the country's rampant inflation, bringing it down from around 75 per cent in the 1990s to only six per cent. It simultaneously improved political and cultural conditions for the Kurds, amended penal codes to make them consistent with European standards and significantly improved its human rights record in general.
Judging by the history of EU admission mechanisms, new entrants are allowed in before a newly approved long-term budget goes into effect. If this were the case, then the nearest possible date for Turkey's accession would theoretically be in 2013. However, as Brussels (the EU headquarters) has so far refused to designate that year as a deadline for Turkey's admission, it looks like Ankara will have to wait until the beginning of the next fiscal term in 2021.
Naturally, a regional power of Turkey's stature is not about to pin its hopes exclusively on the whims of the EU and hold its breath. It will make alternative plans, which, in this case, will involve casting more of its weight into the Middle East. As the architect of Turkey's current foreign policy, Ahmet Davudoglu, has indicated, Ankara plans to become an increasingly active player in reshaping current power balances and smoothing out the volatile contradictions in the region, which, in turn, seems ready to welcome Turkish input.
As another Turkish proverb has it, "You can't dance at two weddings at the same time." While the music in each has already started, just which dance Ankara will join -- North or South -- remains to be seen.
* The writer is director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.


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