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The European Union's Turkish dilemma

About the author
Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine.

Tony Blair’s bid to save the United Kingdom’s budget rebate by cutting funds for the ten new member-states that joined the European Union in May 2004 has shocked central European capitals. London, they have realised, is not willing to shoulder its share of the cost of enlargement. As the 15-16 December summit that will crown Britain’s disappointing six-month presidency of the union approaches, Blair is not alone. Other net contributors like Sweden and Germany would like the 2007-2013 budget to be limited to 1% of GDP, or to be reduced to less than it was when the EU had fifteen members rather than twenty-five.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

“A stork’s eye view from Poland” (May 2001)

“Poland’s nervous ‘return’ to Europe” (April 2004)

“Poland’s letter to France: please say oui! (May 2005)

“Democracy in the European Union, more or less” (July 2005)

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The leaders of the fifteen pre-enlargement EU states got no less of a shock when voters in France and Holland voted down the constitutional treaty in May-June 2005, partly in reaction to the perceived threat to their lifestyles through the accession of ten poorer, more needy countries mainly to the east.

Why the surprise? After all, enlargement was well prepared from the point of view of the acquis communautaire, the body of law that aspiring member-states have to subscribe to before joining. The former Soviet-bloc entrants were keen to join. Old member-state leaders said they wanted the continent reunited after the cold war. The dream of the founding fathers of a Europe whole and at peace was achieved. But no one told the good news to the voters in the “EU fifteen”.

It is clear that before accession the two sides – the “fifteen” and the “ten” - never really faced up to the political and financial implications of reunification. There was little discussion between old and new members on establishing a consensus on what they could expect of each other so that post-entry shocks could be avoided. Thus the entrants continued to hope that EU funds would flow from richer to not-so-rich states as they had after previous enlargements. Meanwhile, the old member-states made a mental note of the fact that the days of generosity on the Helmut Kohl scale were over.

An explosive Rubik cube

Now, actions are dispelling the illusions as the European Union bickers over the budget in serious pre-summit squabbles. At the same time, the EU is limbering up for a new round of enlargement negotiations with Turkey. But there seems to be no attempt to achieve a genuine meeting of minds on the costs and benefits of bringing this large, not very rich, Islamic society with a patchy democratic record into the union. In contrast to the accession of the post-Soviet states, the doubts about the whole process are being made palpably clear. Some member-states, notably Austria but including Germany under the new chancellorship of Angela Merkel, are already implying that negotiations could stop short of full membership for Turkey.

On the Turkish side too analysts are drawing attention to the challenges facing EU and Turkish policy makers. At a recent seminar in Warsaw, Mehmet Ugur, an academic from London’s Greenwich University, asked if the Turkish government is doing enough to build a pro-European consensus that would be necessary to surmount them. The ownership of the Europeanisation project in Turkey, he suggested, has changed hands: the secular-Kemalist elite has begun to lose interest in this project, while those who once contested the basic principles of the Turkish state have moved to support it.

Also on the future of Turkey in openDemocracy:

Reinhard Hesse, “Turkish honey under a German moon” (March 2004)

Murat Belge, “Turkey: normal at last?” (November 2002)

Murat Belge, “Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome” (December 2004)

Fred Halliday, “Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe” (December 2004)

Fadi Hakura, “Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning” (October 2005)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, “The Armenian shadow over Turkey’s democratisation” (October 2005)

Moreover, Turkish patience will be severely tested in the coming period by the needs of resolving the Cyprus issue, addressing Armenian claims and dealing with the Kurdish question. As if this agenda were not already sticky, Turkey’s efforts would be accompanied by the constant drumbeat of European Commission demands for adaptation to the acquis.

In previous enlargements the EU used the stick-and-carrot approach. Candidate countries grinned and bore the demands for change because they knew that their countries would benefit after accession. Turkey sees that there will be few carrots and lots of stick. With Turkey, in contrast to what is happening now between the old and new member-states, the shocks are coming up front.

Nevertheless it would do the cause of Turkish accession a lot of good to go beyond the language of fear and reach out to an underlying consensus between the two sides on what they are to expect of each other. That consensus would include a commitment by the EU to show sensitivity to the fact that internal Turkish politics resemble an explosive Rubik cube. A false move in attempting to align the various domestic stakeholders in the process could see the cube blow up in Turkish leaders’ faces. EU pressure on Turkey is part of this game and Brussels must make sure that it does not provoke a blast.

The Turks, for their part, must think in terms of being co-responsible for internal EU developments. As Katinka Barysch at the Centre for European Reform suggests, Turkey must present itself as a “normal” European country. If Turkey is to join the EU, the traditional take-it-or-leave-it accession method must be modified as both sides share a willingness to work together on easing the other’s political problems. This dialogue would be greatly strengthened by a major increase of mutual study-trips and conferences by people from all walks of life.

Turkish membership of the European Union is too important to the peaceful and democratic development of the region and to the credibility of the EU itself to be allowed to fail. But if it is to succeed, work on building an underlying consensus between the two sides needs to start now – or the next shock will be the biggest.


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