Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Print Print Email Email Share Share Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close

loading...

Betweeen Ankara and Brussels

by Steven A. Cook
October 22, 2010

Istanbul—I arrived late last night to this stunningly beautiful city. The rain was a welcome change from choking hot Cairo. Keeping with the food theme of my first post from Egypt, the dish pictured above was today’s lunch—Iskender Kebab—a heart stopping combination of thinly sliced meat, yogurt, and grilled tomatoes and peppers all served over slice of thick crusty bread. Not for the cholestorally challenged…

There has been a lot in the news recently about Turkey’s identity. Has Turkey been “lost”? is a question that people in Washington have been asking a lot recently. The answer is no, but Ankara’s traditional relationships are changing. This has prompted me to think about the European Union—passé, I know. It’s hard to imagine, especially among Turks, Americans, and Europeans who are committed to Turkey’s EU project, but maybe, just maybe, we’ve (I include myself in this category) been wrong all along. Turkey does not need to be a member of Europe to be a fully democratic and prosperous country.

It’s long been an accepted truth in the Turkey-watching community that the EU was an anchor of Turkish political reform. The structure of Turkish politics was such that Ankara needed the incentive of EU membership to drive democratic change. Many Turks believe this as well, but after 58% of voters said “Evet” (Yes) to a series of constitutional amendments in a September 12th referendum, some commentary—by no means a consensus—began popping up here arguing that Turkey no longer needs the EU to drive its political change. The amendments, the most important of which has to do with the selection of judges to Turkey’s highest judicial bodies, raised legitimate concerns about the government’s ability to pack the courts. Yet, the perception among many is that with the changes to the constitution, the Justice and Development Party government took an important step toward a more open and democratic government that (unlike an array of reforms undertaken in 2003 and 2004) were not specifically in response to Europe’s membership criteria.

Add to Turkey’s apparent ability to undertake change on its own; falling support for EU membership—between 45-50%, which is down 30 points from 2004; a younger generation of Turks who have no vested interest in joining Europe; and imploding EU economies, in contrast to Turkey’s solid growth, it may be time to rethink Ankara’s relationship with Brussels. I am not suggesting that Turkey cut its ties to the West. Europe remains Turkey’s most important trading partner and source of foreign direct investment. Turkey could, after all, continue to harmonize its political and economic systems with the EU, but not take the ultimate step toward membership. That’s what Norway did, and it was enormously beneficial.

I know “privileged partnership” is a dirty phrase for many Turks, but if someone came up with a better name, the arrangement might work to everyone’s benefit. Any suggestions?

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Stephen Meginniss

    Turkey’s role as an economic anchor and resource conduit for Europe is, without question, secure. As the crisis financial crises with the “PIIGS” of Europe clearly demonstrated to the Turk population, there are clear benefits to not being in the EU.

    Not only has the population gained economic confidence as Turkey grows continues strong growth (after a 1-yr contraction in 2009), since 2002, when the AK party swept into power, they have also shown a growing political sophistication. One of the more striking examples was in 2007 during the attempted “e-coup” when protesters carried signs reading “no coup, no shariah”. Mind you, many of these protesters were in “conservative” areas of the country.

    In my assessment Europe faces the greater risk of Turkey’s growing recognition that they don’t “need” Europe politically (much as you correctly compared with Norway), while still able to make economic inroads outside of the monetary union.

    What real benefit would Turkey gain by handing monetary policy to the ECB? Much as we saw this summer, the true weakness of the EU experiment is that member states lose monetary authority while the system itself has weak control over member fiscal policy.

    I agree with you, a “special” relationship with the EU will ultimately make for a stronger Turkey.

  • Posted by sara

    As a non-Turkish but a Middle Eastern citizen, I believe Turkey might be a snubbed member in the EU while could be a perfect model in the Middle East in terms of democracy, prosperity, growth, tourism and etc. For those Arab countries seeking political and social liberties Turkey could be a model; for those seeking Islamic rules and government like Iran, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party could be a symbol of Moslems while practicing their religious follow and stick to international norms and agendas to steer their national interests.
    But in EU what symbol Turkey could be?
    An encouraging but in effect belittling style of manner welcomes them simultaneously welcoming their achievements but mentioning you’re still a work in progress.

  • Posted by Morgan Kaplan

    “Friends with benefits”

  • Posted by Konur Alp

    Turkey as a peace promoting country has always been serving for a better Mid East, Balkans and Caucasia. Its role in NATO, UN and other international organizations clearly demonstrates her indispensible role in international peace, prosperity and stability. Thus, being a member of EU is no doubd, a way to increase her role in tackling with the European problems. For your question whether Turkey needs EU for reforms, i do believe that Turkey has anything necessary for achieving EU standard by itself. The problem is not whether Turkey needs EU, or whether Turkey is ready for EU. It is, whether EU is ready for accepting such a huge country in? While the EU countries struggling with economic crises and while they are far from acting as a unified body in foreign policy issues, it is very unlikely to expect EU to let Turkey in.
    It is the fact that Turkish people are not anymore enthusiastic for EU membership. I remember that in 1999, ensuing days when Turkey was recognized as a candidate country, those people supporting EU membership were claiming that in 2010 Turkey would be a member and per capita income would be $10000. Now it is 2010, Turkey is not a member but income is almost $10000. Thus, people understood that Turkey has the potential to be a leading country by itself. Therefore, we the Turkish people are more self-confident now. We believe that we have colossal human capital, economic stability and strength, and so the potential to be a regional power and a global player of significance. Turkey should not be considered and be treated as if it is the sick man of Europe. It was long time before. It is history not the existing fact!
    From now on, the only way to keep Turkey in EU could just be granting full membership to Turkey as soon as possible. EU has to carry on candid relations with Turkey and pay close attention to the growing dislike against EU among Turkish people. Otherwise, EU alienates Turkey and puts itself in a situation where it would be very difficult to cope with problems stemming from Mid East, Causcasia, Balkans and Central Asia. Turkey needs EU for just its label, “member of the EU” but the EU needs Turkey for peace, prosperity, and stability in larger European continent. When Turkey becomes a full member, it will serve EU more than Turkey. As you mentioned, Turkey does not need EU to be a fully democratic country. However EU needs Turkey to be powerful enough to achieve its goal to be a world power.
    What Economist wrote last Thursday confirms the fact that “Turkey is not turning its back to Europe but it might if Europe and America cannot come to terms with its success” It should be kept in mind that, Turkey is a secular democracy and today’s government cannot last forever. It is just a matter of time when the ruling mildly islamist AKP will be replaced with another one. I am quite sure that the coming elections will be the end of AKP government. When the secular-nationalist-republican opposition parties (CHP and MHP) overthrow AKP, concerns dealing with Turkey’s affiliation with and orientation towards Western world will fade away. What about EU’s hesitation to accept Turkey? Will it come to an end when new governments take office in France, Germany or in Austria? How long EU’s rejection will last? These questions are not less significant than Turkey’s direction or her willingness towards EU accession.

  • Posted by Adam

    One must not forget Turkey’s human rights record and its suppression of dissent. Although the AKP has attempted to reform Turkey you still have a large portion of the population and strong institutions, which tends towards extreme nationalism and advocation against freedom of expression.

  • Posted by aron

    First, while I agree with the thrust of your post, I think the Norway comparison is a little off. Norway is comfortable where it is, precisely because it knows that at any given moment it could opt to join the EU, and it would be embraced with open arms. And… it has oil.

    As for how Turkey could find a comfortable place outside the EU, I don’t think it’s just about labels. I would argue that what’s needed is something like what is discussed by Sara, in comments above: a bloc of its own. If Turkey can — as it seems to hope — position itself as the center and driving force of a liberalizing and integrating regional block, and exercise influence that way, that would be ample compensation for having been unfairly snubbed by the EU.

    On the other hand, there’s also the risk that such an arrangement fixes Turkey’s place as a rival and competitor of EU countries, bloc-against-bloc, east-against-west in the popular mind. That would be tragic both for the EU and Turkey.

    In fact, I think what’s being left out of the equation too often is how much, in the longer run, the EU needs Turkey.

  • Posted by Derek Anderson

    Turkey’s role as an economic anchor and resource conduit for Europe is, without question, secure. As the crisis financial crises with the “PIIGS” of Europe clearly demonstrated to the Turk population, there are clear benefits to not being in the EU.

    Not only has the population gained economic confidence as Turkey grows continues strong growth (after a 1-yr contraction in 2009), since 2002, when the AK party swept into power, they have also shown a growing political sophistication. One of the more striking examples was in 2007 during the attempted “e-coup” when protesters carried signs reading “no coup, no shariah”. Mind you, many of these protesters were in “conservative” areas of the country.

    In my assessment Europe faces the greater risk of Turkey’s growing recognition that they don’t “need” Europe politically (much as you correctly compared with Norway), while still able to make economic inroads outside of the monetary union.

    What real benefit would Turkey gain by handing monetary policy to the ECB? Much as we saw this summer, the true weakness of the EU experiment is that member states lose monetary authority while the system itself has weak control over member fiscal policy.

    I agree with you, a “special” relationship with the EU will ultimately make for a stronger Turkey.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required