LONDON — The ambiguous attitude of Western European countries toward Turkish entry into full membership of the European Union has produced a flood of comments, as well as a good deal of anger and confusion in Turkey.
Opinion is polarized into two camps. On one side there are those who think that keeping Turkey waiting is a fatal strategic error, demonstrating Europe’s failure to come to terms with Islam and passing up the chance for Europe to build bridges to the Middle East and into Central Asia.
On the other side stand a number of leading European politicians who argue that Turkey is neither a Christian country nor geographically part of Europe. The sheer size of the country will upset the whole European balance.
What is more, they can see that Turkish entry is highly unpopular with their electorates, who fear more immigration and competition for lower paid jobs (this applies especially in France and Germany).
Unpopularity is, of course, poison to elected politicians. All but the most courageous will do anything to avoid it. So numerous reasons have been seized upon to keep the Turks at arms length. Let them retain the existing customs union with the EU, it is argued, but that is enough. Actual entry to the club is going too far.
Those who think this way have found a good stick with which to beat Turkey. This revolves round the prickly question of Cyprus. When Cyprus was admitted to the EU three years ago, the Turkish authorities assumed that this would include both the Turkish-occupied northern section of the island as well as the larger Greek-Cypriot part in the south. The United Nations put forward a plan to allow the two parts to re-unify and join the EU as one.
But this reckoned without the intransigence of the Greek-Cypriot leadership in the south, which vetoed the plan and has blocked all further moves by the EU to incorporate the Turkish-controlled north.
A frustrated Turkey has retaliated by closing its ports to shipping from the Greek-controlled area, which, since it is part of the EU, it legally should not do. Now the EU has countered by limiting negotiations with Turkey itself for EU entry, although not closing them down entirely.
All this overlooks an important aspect: Opinion inside Turkey and the way the Turkish people are beginning to change their view of themselves.
Until recently the prevailing Turkish stance was that Turkey belonged to the West, that membership of the EU was a badge of respectability and that signing up as a full member of the EU was, in a sense, the completion of the late Turkish leader Kemal Attaturk’s determination to make Turkey into a secular, modern state.
But deep down, thinking is shifting. If economic power and influence, and also actual political power, are slipping away from the Western world with the rise of Asian mass-capitalism and dynamism, is the European bloc necessarily the one to which Turkey wants to be wholly committed? Do Turkey’s interests and destiny pull more in the direction of a decisive role in the changing Middle East and in links with the new giants to the East, notably India and China?
The Turks can see how the lucrative trade flows from the oil-rich Gulf states are switching from west to east, and they can see how the colossal gold and dollar reserves of China, Japan, Hong Kong and even Taiwan are in effect underpinning the finances of the entire globe.
Of course it is good to keep friendly (although not subservient) links with the Atlantic powers, through Turkey’s long-standing membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And, of course, it is nice to have a toe in the European scene. But does this really necessitate, they ask themselves, entanglement in the nightmare complexities of EU regulations and restrictions? Will Turkish prosperity be stunted if it stays out of the EU?
A glance at the progress of the Turkish economy answers the question. Turkey is a magnet for foreign investment, a byword for hard work and labor market productivity and has a financial system that is now reasonably stable. Its geographical positioning is increasingly ideal. In the old world of the Cold War, or even in the phase after that, when there was supposedly a unipolar system centered round the United States, Turkey may have felt left out.
But that order, too, has passed its sell-by date. The very different global system that is emerging with breakneck speed places Turkey almost at the epicenter of geopolitical affairs both in Europe and in Asia. Turkey is a critical player in the Middle Eastern jigsaw, it is Islamic but without extremist infections, and it has an open economy fully attuned in terms of skills and attitudes to the information revolution.
Turkey’s human-rights standards may still lag behind the best, and there are strange blind spots in Turkish views about its own recent history. But the global pressures for change and maturity on these fronts are coming from all sides, not just from the EU. Why jeopardize a glittering prospect by entering into new entanglements with the old world?
So while EU leaders in Brussels may agonize about admitting Turkey, in that country itself a new realism about Turkey’s long-term interests may be growing. And this realism which, when asked the question about Turkish EU membership, is beginning to answer “Why bother?”
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