- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The long-term future of Turkey, an important American ally in a tough neighborhood, as a secular, Western-oriented Islamic democracy could be substantially undermined by the rejection of its bid for membership in the European Union. The outcome of that process, however, is looking considerably bleaker than it did when accession talks began in October 2005.

In a report to be released today, the European Commission criticizes Turkey on civil-rights reforms, including preserving the freedom of speech and curtailing torture, and meeting EU stipulations with regards to the divided island of Cyprus. The critical report will certainly be used to build a diplomatic case against Turkish membership, which could take a serious turn for the worse with a suspension of accession talks at the EU summit in December.

Popular support for the process on both sides has dwindled. Many in Turkey were upset by what they believe to be a double standard, a higher bar than has been required of other nations that joined the EU. Enthusiasm for Turkish membership in the EU was very strong during Turkey’s 2002 elections, which brought to power the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a pro-Islamic party that also had a pro-EU platform. Since then, however, disenchantment has grown in Turkey along with the perception that the membership process may in fact be moribund, permanently mired in endless demands for reform.

Opposition in Europe may reflect what Ollie Rehn, the EU expansion commissioner, called “enlargement fatigue,” a reaction to the growth of the bloc from 15 member countries to 25 in 2004. That Turkey, a Muslim country and poor by comparison, would become the second-largest nation in the EU also factors into the opposition. The French Parliament in October backed a bill that would criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide, the 1915 massacre that the Turkish government does not recognize, in a move that further estranged Turkey. Germany, France and Austria have voiced their preference for an alternative to full membership — a proposal that Turkey would not accept.

Turkey certainly has substantial progress to make, both in terms of human rights and economic reforms. But the promise of membership in the EU will serve as a great incentive to drive those reforms, provided that Turkey itself remains committed to joining. The EU requirements should be designed to facilitate Turkey’s accession process, not to provide fodder against the bid sometime later in the process. Turkey’s long-term future as a secular, Western-oriented country will be heavily contingent on the outcome. With concurrent soured relations with both the United States and Europe, Turkey’s inclination will be to turn toward an Islamic East, and that outcome is not in the strategic interests of either the United States or Europe.

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