Monday, December 25, 2006

The European Union did itself a disservice this month with a decision to suspend eight of the 35 “chapters” of Turkey’s accession negotiations, the most recent in a series of episodes that suggest Europe is distancing itself from Turkey. The Turks have been increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as a double standard applied to their country’s membership bid, and popular opinion in Turkey is turning increasingly against the process. The successful accession would help solidify Turkey as a Western-oriented democracy in the Muslim world, while a failure would be damaging to its relationship with Western allies and to the Turkish republic itself.

Economic and political reforms are challenging to accomplish in Turkey, but the carrot of EU accession makes difficult reforms more palatable and politically feasible. The EU process also establishes a structural framework for Turkey’s reforms, for which the entry requirements can be tremendously valuable as a guide. But if the requirements are set so as to preclude Turkish membership rather than to encourage and direct Turkish reforms, the entire process becomes unproductive — or, at worst, counterproductive by turning Turkey to the East.

The eight “chapters” were suspended this month because of a deadlock over the Cyprus issue, the decades-old conflict between ethnic Turks in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south of the island. Turkey has refused to open its ports to trade with Cyprus, an EU member that Turkey does not recognize. The EU, in turn, maintains an embargo on the Turkish-occupied northern part of the divided island. Resolving this contentious issue is complicated, but it need not cause an impasse in Turkey’s membership talks. A late proposal from Turkey to open two ports to trade with Cyprus for a year had merit, at least in as much as it would have offered a one-step-forward alternative to the suspension of negotiations.

Heading into an election year in Turkey adds another dimension. For one, the EU shouldn’t expect Turkish politicians to concede much on the issues of Cyprus or the Armenian genocide, a dark chapter in Turkey’s history that the government has not revisited. A rebuff from Europe to some extent reflects poorly on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the leading supporter of EU accession. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) — AKP’s sole opposition in parliament, and the best contender to overtake AKP in 2007 — has opposed EU accession, contrary to the position its own ideology would seem to dictate, largely because of its role as sole parliamentary minority party and its chosen course of reflexive opposition to any AKP initiative.

When the dust from the accession process settles many years down the road, and Turkey has either joined the EU with full or partial membership — or has not joined — an undeniably important measure of the process will be the extent to which Turkey has continued to enact economic and political reforms that bring it more in line with its Western allies than its Eastern neighbors. Turkey feels the pull between two poles: a secular and democratic Europe and a hostile, undemocratic Middle East. The more it appears that Europe is trying to close the door to membership, the more likely Turkey will embrace a more Islamist Middle East. This is a strategic blunder that the West should not allow to happen.

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