Sunday, June 1, 2008

All Is Not Quiet on the Western Front

The French National Assembly voted yesterday to require a popular referendum to be held before the French government will assent to the EU accession of any country whose population exceeds five percent of the EU population. The law will apply only to Ukraine and Turkey, and affirms Turkish fears that the Sarkozy government is out to block its membership bid. The vote comes before Sarkozy is scheduled to assume the presidency of the Council of Europe in July and brings attention to the disenchantment of some EU governments and a significant section of the EU population that is opposed to Turkish membership. As Turkish membership will require the assent of all EU members, the recent French move is very disturbing.

It should be noted that the French vote was far from unanimous and still needs to be approved by the French Senate to become law. The vote was 48-21 as most socialist lawmakers voted against the bill. Today's Zaman quotes Bruno LeMaire:
"Many eyes are fixed on us now -- those of our compatriots, but also those of peoples from the world wondering whether we will really introduce in our
Constitution an arrangement targeting implicitly a particular country," Le Maire
said, according to EU observer. "[If the US put into its constitution an article]
targeting Mexico, Columbia or any other country, then France -- the country of
human rights -- would be shocked. I am now afraid that our neighbors might be
[shocked] by this new arrangement."
Sarkozy has expressed his opposition to Turkish membership and caused a roar last week when he made comments at a speech in Poland in which he declared Europe needed to protect its borders. According to Sarkozy, those borders should stop at the Ukraine and Turkey. Sarkozy has already proposed a privileged partnership for Ukraine, and Turkey fears that his plans for the Union for the Mediterranean are driven by the same design. The vote follows French diplomatic moves before the EU-Turkey Association Council meeting last week to remove the word "accession" from the position paper it publishes as to Turkey's accession progress.

While French public opinion might well be changed and while the French law, if approved by the Senate, can later be repealed, its passage speaks to the need to educate the European public on Turkey's membership bid. The European Commission has recently devoted funds to such an education effort, and, with time, hopefully most Europeans will realize the benefits commensurate with Turkish membership or, at the very least, be able to make a much more informed opinion. Such an approach contrasts sharply with that of Sarkozy. The French president has justified his opposition to Turkish membership by pointing to its lack of support among the French populace, and contrary to European norms of representation, has simply accepted such discontent rather than engaging in any sort of dialogue with the French populace about the benefits and costs of Turkish accession.

The French vote aside, the French presidency might actually prove to be a promising one. Sarkozy has already declared his intention to open up two more chapters of the acquis for negotiation and will likely be under pressure to do so as to prove that he is not personally attempting to block the cooperative path being tread by the Commission. To counter Sarkozy's fervent opposition to Turkish membership, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said that if it was up to him, eight chapters would be opened.

Worthy of attention is Semih İdiz' advice to Turks in the Turkish Daily News:
The point here is that us Turks, despite the fact that we are an extremely touchy people, should see the picture as a whole and understand that Mr. Sarkozy has not been as influential thus far in his attempts to block Turkey as he would have hope to be.

This does not mean, of course, that he has given up on this, as his reported remarks to Dziennik indicate. It will therefore be interesting to see how Paris behaves on this score during its up coming EU term presidency.

It is clear that any blatant attempt to use this presidency against Turkey will not go down well in some parts of Europe, even if they are applauded in other parts.

Ironically some argue that this presidency could even move Turkey's membership negotiations further, given that Paris will not want to be seen, for the sake of propriety, to be using its six months at the helm of the EU to further a pet obsession that not everyone in Europe agrees with.

Meanwhile quite a few EU ambassadors I know in Ankara are repeating Miliband's line and exhorting Turkey to stay on course vis a vis the EU, and do everything in its hand to implement and further the reform process in order to also strengthen the hand of Turkey's friends in Europe.

There are even important Frenchmen who are saying the same. For example, Mr. Jacques Attali, who is known to be close to President Sarkozy. In Istanbul recently to deliver a speech, he too was advising Turkey to stay focused on the EU and to do its homework for the sake of membership, rather than constantly dwell on certain remarks from abroad.

This is a wise approach coming from a very important French economist and scholar who has, it seems, a better focus on the way the real world is developing than the president who he is said to be advising.

It is a foregone conclusion at this stage that the Sarkozy presidency is going to be one during which Turkish-French relations remain in the doldrums to a great extent. It is doubtful, however, that Mr. Sarkozy will be able to put the stamp he wants on Europe as far as Turkey's EU bid is concerned, for all the difficulty that he will create.

His problem is that more European politicians than he would like are aware of what the cost of alienating Turkey would be in the long run, whatever short term considerations may be. As for France it is already paying a price of sorts in this respect, having basically been ostracized by Ankara when it comes to grand economic schemes that are as strategic as they are vital for the future of Europe.

It would be appropriate to end here with remarks from Foreign Secretary Miliband who, in his Milliyet piece, had these words for Ankara in the face of negative remarks coming from some in Europe.

“The right response is to press ahead patiently and resiliently with the political and economic reforms necessary for membership which are, in any case, in Turkey's own interests. Turkey's friends will stay with you.”

These words should, of course, also be noted by anti-European Turks who believe Turkey has no friends in Europe whatsoever, and who use President Sarkozy's remarks as one of their key arguments in their attempt to bolster this mistaken belief of theirs, and drag Turkey away from its European vocation.

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