Turkey goes cool on joining the European Union as it falls for the lure of the East July 11, 2010Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
Tags: EU, European Union, Turkey
As Europe’s top diplomat prepares to travel to Turkey, Colin Freeman finds a country not entirely convinced about their need to join the EU.
Sipping a lunchtime latte amid the gleaming skyscrapers of Istanbul’s financial district, banker Mehmet Canayaz debated whether the European Union should admit Turkey. The prognosis, he admitted, was not good: a dynamic, forward-looking region would end up shackled to an economy with severe debt, financial instability, and an uncompetitive workforce. Best for Turkey, perhaps, to steer clear of the chaotic Brussels club altogether.
“If we don’t join, it will be Europe’s problem, not ours,” said Mr Canayaz, 25, who was relieved to be watching the recent Euro-zone crash from the outside rather than the inside.
“If they do let us in one day, fine. But in coming years, it will be them that needs us, more than us needing them. Their economy isn’t as competitive as it once was.”
The issue of whether the EU should be allowed to join Turkey, rather than Turkey being allowed to join the EU, is not the way the Eurocrats of Brussels have often chosen to phrase it since the stalled membership talks formally began in 1987.
But when the EU’s Foreign Affairs High Representative, Baroness Ashton, arrives in Ankara for fresh accession talks this week, she may well find no shortage of Turks asking the same question the same way round as Mr Canayaz.
Fed up with being rebuffed by France and Germany, proud of their successful economy, and increasingly keen to court their fellow Muslim neighbours to the East, a growing number of Turkey’s 73 million citizens are now wondering whether EU membership is quite so important as it once seemed. While nearly three quarters of Turks supported the idea in 2004, some polls less than half doing so now.
Among those whom Baroness Ashton will meet on Tuesday is the man most closely associated with Turkey’s re-assessment of its outside interests, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. A key figure in the AKP party, the moderate Islamist movement that has ruled Turkey for the last eight years, he is widely seen as the prime mover in his country’s cooling off towards the West.
Turkey’s fury with Israel over the shooting of nine Turkish activists on an aid ship to Gaza, and its controversial recent uranium deal with Iran, have both rung alarm bells in some western capitals – including Washington – over the country’s apparent tilt back to the east.
They are all part of what many describe as Mr Davutoglu’s “neo-Ottomanist” world view, seeking to recreate the days when Turks wielded clout from central Europe to the Persian Gulf. Critics fear that in courting far more radical Islamic governments, Turkey will reach a tipping point where it may turn its face away from Europe.
True, at a meeting in London last week with William Hague, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Turkey’s answer to Henry Kissinger struck a more conciliatory note, insisting Ankara still wanted to join the EU.
But in a speech last month in Rize on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was less diplomatic. “I tell (European leaders) that if you are not a Christian club, you are obliged to accept Turkey,” he said, lamenting how the EU had admitted many decrepit former Communist bloc countries ahead of Turkey. “These countries are far behind, none of them comparable to Turkey.”
Certainly, it is hard to imagine finding any equivalent of Istanbul’s business district, the Levent, in Bulgaria or Romania.
A futuristic complex of steel, concrete and glass, it is like London’s Square Mile – only newer, cleaner and with a better dining climate for the many smart outdoor restaurants. For men like Mr Canayaz, it is a testament to Turkey’s economic success in the past decade, which has seen exports skyrocket both eastwards and westwards. Turkish specialities include cars, construction, cellphone networks and – appropriately for anyone nostalgic for the Ottoman empire – furniture.
It is not just modern Turkey that is thinking twice about EU membership, however.
In the alleys of the conservative, working-class Istanbul district of Fatih, where locals still prefer traditional Turkish coffee to Starbucks, attitudes to Europe are similarly indifferent.
“It is not necessary for us to be a member of the EU,” said Emine Erdem, 49, a hijab-clad mother waiting for evening prayers outside the local mosque. “For one thing, it will threaten our values – we will have to promote things like homosexuality. And besides, they are two-faced towards Islamic countries. They have allowed Bulgaria and Romania in, but not us, when we are much more developed”.
The economic progress that has undermined Turkey’s sense of urgency about joining the EU is closely associated with the success of the AKP, whose motto in English means “Justice and Development”.
Frequently likened to a Calvinist version of Islam, its followers combine religious observance with a Protestant-style work ethic: the cities in central Turkey that are the bedrock of its support are known as the “Anatolian Tigers” for their industrial success.
To their supporters in the outside world – Britain included – they embody precisely the kind of moderate, prosperous Islam that the rest of the Middle East might do well to follow. Hence Mr Hague’s re-iteration last week of Britain’s long-standing support for Turkish EU accession, and his pledge to press other European nations to drop their opposition.
“For the EU to turn its back on Turkey would be an immense strategic error,” he said.
Mr Hague’s comments echo fears voiced by America, whose Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, warned last month that Brussels’ dithering over Turkey’s membership could see it “drift” away from Europe and into closer partnerships with Western enemies like Iran.
That scenario likewise alarms pro-European Turks, who share the anger at the EU snub, but fear that throwing in their lot with their Muslim allies could embolden the AKP party to impose a more Islamic society.
“People in Britain may think this government is moderate and liberal, but they are not,” said Ayse Ozek Karasu, the editor of Haberturk newspaper. “There are cities here now where it is hard to buy alcohol, and where women feel pressurised to wear the headscarf. I feel that they have a secret agenda, which is not to be in the EU, but to be leaders of the Islamic world.”
Mr Hague, however, may struggle to persuade fellow Europeans to change their minds. Germany, which already has a large Turkish immigrant community, fears the arrival of millions more from Turkey’s still backward eastern regions.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, expresses his opposition on the more intractable grounds that Turkey is simply not part of Europe geographically.
There are also more widely-acknowledged obstacles, such the unresolved “frozen conflict” with Greece over the divided island of Cyprus, with Turkey refusing to allow Cypriot ships access to its ports. Opponents of Turkish membership also point out that were Ankara in the Eurozone already, it would have been unlikely to want to use its new found economic might to join May’s financial bail-out of Greece.
“The sentiment in Germany and France is certainly an obstacle, as is the Cyprus issue,” said a senior Brussels source briefed on Baroness Ashton’s pending visit. “But I think her message to the Turks will be simply ‘keep at it’. Governments change their attitudes over the years. After all, Britain was vetoed from joining Europe a couple of times as well.”
Just how much more patience she can expect from Turkey is another matter.
Talks are so far only open on 13 of the 35 policy areas, or “chapters”, that the EU requires to be legally fulfilled before membership can even be considered, and even if France and Germany were to mellow, nobody expects membership much prior to 2020.
It is a long time to wait – yet as Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkish-EU relations, points out, pique at being blackballed by the “Christian Club” does not equate to wanting to be a paid-up member of the “Muslim Club”.
“The Turkish public is very pragmatic, and they will be wary of moving towards the East because they see its problems,” he said.
“For all the talk about that going in that direction, the country they would most like to become like is Germany.”