Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hope on the Western Front (In Light of the Recent Disquiet)

Sarkozy's attempts to block Turkish membership aside, there is really much reason to hope that the EU will look upon Turkish accession with favor once it is ready for membership. Many EU bureaucrats at the helm of the European Commission and a significant number of EMPs are in strong support of Turkish membership, including Joost Lagendijk who CHP decided to target last month.

As to the European population at-large, despite that only 28 percent of EU citizens polled last fall supported Turkish entry, several EU citizens are not firmly opposed and are certainly able to be persuaded. If Turkey overcomes significant human rights barriers (85 percent of Europeans expressed serious concern in this regard), continues its project of democratization while avoiding pitfalls like the closure case, and continues to improve its economy (the political pitfalls being a serious threat), European opinion will naturally change as EU politicians move to laud reform and voices like Sarkozy's are crowded out. Thus, in many ways, Turkey is in control of its own destiny and it is still far too early in the reform process to be discouraged.

Perhaps most encouraging is that 34 percent of Europeans responded that Turkish membership would benefit the EU more than it benefits Turkey. There is ample reason for this. From the Economist:
Will Turkey ever join the union? There is no shortage of strategic arguments in favour of its accession. It is a large, secular Muslim democracy. It controls the Bosporus, as well as gas or oil pipeline routes that would allow Europe to become less dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. Such arguments mark Turkey out as important. But many Europeans clearly feel that is not the same thing as saying it should join the EU. Any enlargement of the club must be agreed on by all existing members. The most recent Eurobarometer poll on enlargement found that 69% of Germans, 54% of French and a striking 81% of Austrians were opposed to Turkish entry.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s current enlargement chief, likens the EU accession process to a journey that matters as much as the destination. Europe wants Turkey to become more modern, democratic and stable because Turkey has strategic importance as "an anchor of stability and a benchmark of democracy for the wider Muslim world", he says. The best way of achieving those changes is the process of becoming an EU member. So to him, "importance and membership are inseparable."

If membership is ruled out as a destination, the journey cannot continue. But a clause in the French constitution (a sop for the anti-Turkey camp from the previous president, Jacques Chirac) obliges France to hold referendums before approving new accessions after Croatia’s. Given French voters’ views, the clause makes Turkish entry talks pretty pointless. Back in April Mr Sarkozy was arguing for the clause to be scrapped. After a parliamentary outcry he is now wavering.

Turkey itself, meanwhile, seems rather disillusioned. When Eurobarometer pollsters asked Turks whether membership was mainly in their interest, the EU’s interest or in the mutual interest of both, the largest block of respondents (34%) thought the main beneficiary would be the EU. Perhaps surprisingly, some senior EU figures agree. "We need Turkey more than Turkey needs us," says Mr Verheugen.

Such statements may shock Europeans, but they need to hear them. They are too used to seeing enlargement as a charitable gift from a rich West to its poorer neighbours. It is hard work for both sides. But it is also an almost magical tool for stabilising a whole continent, creating new markets and letting free trade and free movement build ties of interdependence.

For these reasons and more, Europe’s most recent expansion was not just a good idea. In retrospect, it will be seen as one of the EU’s most significant achievements. It reunited a continent divided by Soviet oppression and brought into the European fold nations that had previously hovered on the edges of the West. If it were tried now, it would be far harder to pull off. Europeans everywhere should be glad it happened just in time.
Turkey has a lot to offer Europe and vice versa, and like previous expansions, Turkish accession can be mutually beneficial for both parties.

In the meantime, it is necessary that Turkish politicians, including Babacan, not to make too much of EU opposition. From talking to people on the street, the hope of EU membership is fading and, consequently, so is a major impetus for reform. Every time a raucous is made in the Turkish media about EU opposition, the result is a disenchantment that does not seem to ever be balanced with the great lot of support Turkey has in the EU. Hence, usually criticism plays right into the hands of the Euro-skeptics. Let the Turko-philes in Europe deal with the issue and if Turkish input is needed, it can happen behind closed doors. In the meantime, there is much to be done in Turkey and Turkish politics won't win any favor with the European Commission if they continue to stall to finish the ample amount of work that still needs to be done. When Babacan took a hostile position at the Association Council last week, he was duly greeted with a calm reminder from Rehn that the government needs to stop worrying so much about rhetoric and focus on action. (AKP has still not appointed a chief negotiator to better distribute the huge workload that EU negotiations entail.) When AKP was successful before the 2005 slow down, this was its method of operation. At the beginning of the reform process, Erdoğan said famously , "The alternative to Europe is ourselves." Unfortunately, if AKP does not pick up the pace, this might prove the case.

The full results of the fall 2007 EuroBarometer poll are worth a careful look.

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