Turkey and the EU (2/10)     Print Email

By Michael Mosettig, Former Foreign Editor, PBS News Hour

Given  the cascade of political and economic problems descending on both the European Union and Turkey, perhaps it is surprising that either remains even  somewhat interested in exploring a deeper relationship, probably one that does not result anytime soon in Turkish membership in the EU.

Turkey's place in a unified Europe is almost as old an issue as the formation of the original Common Market, and an association agreement has been in place for more than 50 years. But negotiations to take that accord to full membership have been at best a roller coaster ride that never seems to reach an end. And like a teenage couple caught in one of the cars, the affections between them seem to wax and wane as randomly and unpredictably as adolescent emotions.

At the moment, no officials or analysts  in Europe or Turkey are anticipating much progress on the latest round of entry negotiations, which have been going on for eight years.. But from a recent Washington conference there was something of a consensus that deep problems on both sides are making it imperative for the talks to go on, however haltingly, because both sides have reasons to need each other.

Foremost on the minds of those at the Washington gathering, sponsored by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, were the upheavals in and around Turkey that have rather abruptly exposed the vulnerabilities of the once supremely self confident government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On the home front, Erdogan has gone from fending off protests of the secularized Istanbul elite to his plans to turn a park into a shopping mall to fighting allegations of corruption deep in his government and a bitter fight with a one-time Islamist ally. His response has been to try to silence or remove his opponents, tighten the screws on dissent and put in jeopardy liberalizing political and judicial reforms which had been a key criterion for Turkish acceptance into the EU fold.

In his Mideast neighborhood, Erdogan's ambitions of making Turkey a major regional power have been shattered from Egypt to Syria to Iran and Iraq. And on the economic front, Turkey's once booming economy is fending off the turmoil hitting currencies in emerging markets.

Which suddenly makes Europe, where Turkey's newly dynamic young entrepreneurs have been increasing their trading relationships,loom larger. Nearly half of Turkey's exports now go to Europe, and European investment in Turkey also is growing. And even with deeper Turkish disillusionment over Europe,  44 percent in a recent poll still favored joining the EU.

As the panelists noted, those developments are changing the tone, if not the substance, of current EU-Turkish relations. Erdogan's recent visits to Germany and Brussels and French President Hollande's trip to Turkey all came off smoothly  even  if no fundamental divides were breached on membership. One example of the contrast, Erdogan spoke warmly of and to the 1.7 million Turks living in Germany, no longer denouncing them as assimilationists as he did on previous visits. (One difference, of course, a change in German law now allows those Turks to vote in Turkey without losing legal status in Germany).

But among the panelists, one area of nuanced disagreement was whether the  negotiation process could get any worse. Rana Deep Islan, of the Stittung Mercator in Essen, spoke of  "a serious lack of political will on both sides."  Joshua Walker of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. described the process as being on " life support."

But they agreed, quoting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, it was important to keep talks going. Former U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson suggested,that as Turkey becomes more unstable politically, it is all the more important for Europe to remain engaged. He added that since no further EU enlargement anywhere  may be in store for twenty years, Turkey could well become a more secure and successful country over that time.

In the absence of concrete accords, diplomacy comes up with verbal formulations.Around Europe and on the panels, there was talk of "strategic partnerships" and "privileged partnerships."  Islan suggested that  with a possible British partial disengagement from the EU, maybe Turkey could achieve a similar measure of partial engagement. The rejoinder to that was it is easier to get out of an organization you already are in than to get into an organization that has excluded you for decades.

Both Wilson and Walker reminded the audience that the United States, especially under the Bush Administration,irritatingly to some European leaders,  was a more fervent advocate of Turkish admission than any European government. The Obama Administration has officially pursued the same policy but with less vocal enthusiasm or energy. In any event, American, and to some degree European, security ties are deep with Turkey through the NATO alliance.

What the panelists did not confront directly were questions of whether entry negotiations with a nation of 76 million Muslims could go into an deeper freeze should upcoming European elections produce even more anti-immigrant and xenophobic results in the EU and national parliaments. The technical answer to that was that the Commission, not the parliament, conducts the negotiations.