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Where is Turkey’s key to the EU door?

M N Hebbar (View from Europe)
Filed on November 1, 2011

Time was when the mention of the word Turkey in the populous democracies of Europe conjured up exotic visions of foreign nationals living in their midst as perfectly legitimate law-abiding citizens.

Their significant numbers in post-war Germany, for instance, reflected the pressing needs of a manpower-starved nation struggling to rebuild its shattered economy from its bootstraps. Turkey was a valued member in the comity of nations. But Turkey’s 40-year bid for membership of the European Union (EU) has surprisingly been a long saga of theatrics, charade, disdain and continuing jilting of a nation that has transformed itself well beyond its initial image of a pliant supplicant state.

Europe’s efforts at integration have seen the EU take 27 nations into its fold to date, and still counting. The Commission has given a green signal to many aspiring nations. Croatia will be the 28th member. Serbia and Montenegro as well as Iceland have expressed their serious interest in joining the Union. The likes of Romania, Bulgaria and, yes, Greece, have made their way in. But Turkey, economically resurgent and politically self-confident, is still left standing at the door. Indeed, the focus has never been greater on a member seeking admission to the august club than on Turkey.

As is the wont, the EU laid down conditions for Turkey to fulfill before accession could be a reality. They referred to the country’s democratic institutions, religious freedom, infrastructural development, economic growth, women’s rights and many more.

The unspoken elephant in the room, however, was that Turkey was a country with some 80 million Muslims wanting to join what has been referred to as a cosy “Christian club”. The EU in general, and France and Germany in particular, has done everything to dampen the hopes of Ankara but have kept them alive by tantalisingly dangling the criteria to be fulfilled. The Europeans have barely concealed their deep discomfort at the possible ‘spectre’ of “hordes of Muslims moving about freely all over the EU”, a right automatically conferred on every EU member. Turkey’s EU bid is frankly seen as a test of EU’s commitment to living with different religions.

Has Turkey earned any opprobrium by its conduct? On the contrary, Turkey has pushed through a flurry of EU-inspired reforms in the past decade when hopes of an EU entry were high. Its foreign policy, guided until the 1990s largely by security concerns, is now increasingly aligned with regional interests and reflects its geostrategic shift from its ties to Europe and the United States hitherto to playing a role in reducing regional conflicts.

But if Turkey has given the impression of turning its face away from Brussels and towards the East lately, much of the blame can be laid at the door of the EU. Former US defence secretary Robert Gates has gone on record saying that the foot-dragging by the EU on Ankara’s application for membership has weakened its links to the West and pushed it eastwards.

Germany and France should give up their “Turkey lies geographically in Asia” argument. Turkey’s foreign policy has won friends and economic opportunities, too. This drive has helped Turkey become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is taking the lead in post-Gaddafi Libya to secure its commercial interests and is trying to demonstrate that it is an indispensable player in the Middle East and in Africa.

Turkey has not abandoned its important foreign policy goal of EU membership. Indeed, its urbane foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has reasserted that his country was not on probation. Ironically, today’s Turkey has more to offer the West than ever before. Its new image and geostrategic credibility in the Middle East and the Muslim world will make it a partner that the EU would risk losing only at its own peril.

H.N.Hebbar is a veteran journalist and commentator on European affairs based in Berlin


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