Turkey offers EU more punch

Turkey offers EU more punch

Opinion piece (European Voice)
01 September 2005

Rather than undermine the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, Turkish membership of the Union could boost the bloc's power in trouble spots across the Middle East and Central Asia, argues Charles Grant.

Opponents of Turkish accession to the EU often claim that it would damage the cohesiveness of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). They argue that a country such as Turkey, with pronounced views on several contentious international questions and a strong sense of its national interest, would be harder to integrate into the CFSP than, say, Slovenia.

Turkish membership of the EU could potentially create problems for CFSP. But it could also be an asset. Turkey's proximity to, and ties with, troubled zones such as the Balkans, the Arab Middle East, the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq and Central Asia, could strengthen the EU's role and influence in such places. And Turkey's critics often fail to appreciate that Turkey's attitude towards its neighbours has evolved greatly in recent years. Turkey now gets on much better with most of its neighbours - including Greece - than it used to. That evolution has left Turkey quite closely aligned with EU policies.

On Iran, for example, Turkey shares American and European objectives that Tehran should be dissuaded from developing nuclear weapons.

But like the EU, Turkey believes that threats to use force against Iran are likely to be counterproductive. On Syria, too, the Turks share the EU's reluctance to promote regime change. Ankara fears that a Syrian revolution could produce a worse leader than Bashar Assad, and incite Syrian Kurds to rise up.

On Iraq, Turkey has played a generally constructive role and accepted a federal constitution for the country, although that gives strong autonomy to Iraq's Kurds. But if Iraq's Kurds became independent, that would be a major issue for Turkey: more Turkish Kurds could demand independence and the Turkomen in the Kurdish part of Iraq would fear persecution.

In the Balkans, Turkey's policies have long been aligned with those of the EU. Turkey has provided thousands of peacekeepers for the NATO and EU-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Kosovo. And in Afghanistan Turkey has provided more than 1,000 peacekeepers for the NATO- led mission.

Turkey has also supported the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). During the development of that policy, Turkey's concern has been that it should be involved in, rather than excluded from, decision-making; but the closer Turkey moves towards EU membership, the less of an issue that becomes. (Turkey's troubled relationship with Cyprus has created problems for the ESDP's relationship with NATO, but if Turkey does move towards EU membership such problems will have to be ironed out long before Turkey reaches that destination.) Turkey has taken part in every EU-led military operation except that in the Republic of Congo. In the long run, the size and quality of Turkey's armed forces could be a considerable plus for Europe's defence policy.

One of the big worries about Turkish accession, seen from 'core' EU countries such as France and Germany, is that it would be a Trojan horse for American interests in Europe. Turkey's critics worry that, rather like Britain, it may be incapable of diverging significantly from American foreign policy. Historically there was some basis for that analysis. The Turkish armed forces have very close links with their American counterparts. Turkey was also the only country in the region that shared the US' close ties to Israel.

But as Turkey has moved closer to the EU, so have its views on many global issues. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has sought close relations with the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. And when the US asked Turkey in early 2003 to provide troops for the invasion of Iraq, the Turkish parliament narrowly voted against it.

Not just the policies, but also the style of Turkish diplomacy have become more European. As Michael Emerson and Nathalie Tocci observed last year: "While in the past Turkish foreign policy has focused on the importance of military security and balance-of-power politics, it now increasingly appreciates the value of civilian instruments of law, economics and diplomacy, as well as multilateral settings in which to pursue its aims."

The increasing distance between the American and Turkish governments on some international questions has been underpinned by a growth of anti-American sentiment in Turkish public opinion. According to one recent survey, the Turkish public has a less favourable impression of the US than the people of any other European country. The German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends 2004 showed that only 21% of Turks believed that the US and Europe should move closer together, while in France, Germany and Italy the scores were 30-32%.

Two issues could create particular problems for Turkey's participation in the CFSP: Armenia and Kurdish separatism. Turkey keeps its border with Armenia closed, at considerable economic cost to the Armenian economy (and eastern Turkey). Turkey does this to express solidarity with Azerbaijan; Armenia is illegally occupying about 20% of Azerbaijan, including the Armenian-speaking Nagorno- Karabakh enclave.

In the long run, if Turkey wants to become an EU member, that border will have to open, since the EU has friendly relations with Armenia. But, for the time being, Azerbaijan is putting pressure on Turkey to keep the border shut, on the grounds that opening it would reduce the pressure on Armenia to be more constructive about Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia itself could help to encourage more constructive attitudes in Turkey, for example by recognising Turkey's borders, which currently it does not.

The other worrying issue is an apparent revival in violence by Kurdish separatists. In 2005 Turkey has suffered several bomb attacks from Kurdish extremists. A revival of the civil war in Turkey's south-east could trigger a clamp-down by the Turkish army. Any human-rights abuses in the course of such a conflict would greatly concern the EU. Renewed fighting would also make it harder for the Turkish government to press ahead with reforms, such as strengthening regional administrations or extend cultural rights to the Kurdish minority. Extended fighting between the army and PKK guerrillas could also affect Turkish foreign policy: if there were signs of the guerrillas being supplied or aided from the Kurdish parts of Syria, Iran or Iraq, the Turkish army could launch raids outside its own borders. And that would lead to much less friendly relations with Turkey's neighbours - and to a much more strained relationship with the EU.