Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?

Fadi Hakura
13 November 2006

One year since the opening of European Union accession negotiations with Turkey in October 2005 - already an event characterised by tortuous delays and difficulties - has not been easy. The dispute over (Greek) Cyprus's access to Turkish ports and airports is only the latest divisive issue blocking momentum in the talks, leaving many pessimistic observers to wonder whether the process will in the end lead (as the timetable envisages) to Turkey's membership of the EU around 2015.

In light of these problems, leading European politicians and commentators are resorting to increasingly extravagant language to describe this contentious relationship. The EU's enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn has coined the memorable phrase "train crash" to describe the problems which have arisen in the course of the last year's discussions. The likely French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy is fond of pontificating about the EU's incapacity to "absorb" Turkey. Media headlines, too, embrace dramatic terms such as "divorce", "breakdown", and "crisis" to convey the atmosphere between the two sides.

A casual observer would be forgiven for assuming that the European Union and Turkish "trains" are indeed on a "collision course"; or more poetically, that the ties of bilateral courtship are heading for a messy "break-up". In reality, however, metaphors involving train accidents and romantic troubles obfuscate rather than clarify the issues and dynamics surrounding Turkey's European prospects.

Fadi Hakura is a specialist on Turkish affairs at Chatham House, London

Also by Fadi Hakura in openDemocracy:

"Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning" (5 October 2006)

Economics and fear

An important point in this respect is that from the beginning, the European Union-Turkey relationship was never based on psychological feelings of love or affection but rather on cold, strategic considerations of costs and benefits. Such a relationship, conditioned by reciprocity, mutual benefits and interchange, is underpinned by what sociologists call "social-exchange theory".

This view is reinforced by a closer look at the arguments on both sides in favour of Turkey's accession to the EU. Opinion surveys have consistently indicated that Turks endorse accession principally, though not exclusively, for reasons of economic prosperity and social welfare. Turkey's pro-EU prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan envisions a Turkey that is no longer "an isolated and closed society ... [but] an open and transparent one... [achieving] a lot more in solidarity with [its] friends." These orientations are practical, pragmatic and strategic, not emotional.

Similarly, European accession proponents resort to strategic arguments: the importance of Turkey in stabilising the middle east, enhancing EU energy security, contributing demographically to an ageing Europe, significantly expanding EU markets, combating human- and drug-trafficking, and acting as an example of reform to the Muslim world.

Accession sceptics (again, in both Turkey and the EU) adopt an approach in stark contrast to the cost-benefit principle underlying the pro-accession stance, because they so often revert to raw, alarmist emotions against Turkey's EU membership. Here, among European politicians and publics, opposition to Turkey's membership is closely linked to the fear of Islam. France's former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin thundered: "Do we (Europeans) want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?"  

Nicolas Sarkozy has declared: "We have a problem of integration of Muslims that raises the issue of Islam in Europe. To say it is not a problem is to hide from reality. If you let 100 million Turkish Muslims come in, what will come of it?" (Turkey's population is projected to reach a peak of 80-85 million by 2025, and be followed by a downward trend).

The Christian Social Union (CSU) leader in Germany's coalition government, Edmund Stoiber, talks of Europe as a "community of values" that cannot include Turkey; other centre-right politicians, such as German chancellor Angela Merkel is more circumspect, but her pounding on the theme of Turkey's "cultural differences" with Europe is clearly a coded reference to Islam.

Turkish nationalists, arguably a declining proportion of a rapidly secularising and modernising population, worry that accession is contrary to the country's social traditions and territorial integrity. They frequently express feelings of honour, pride and anger against what they perceive as European slights and insults. These history-centric nationalists are haunted by, and at every opportunity seek, to conjure the ghosts of the Ottoman empire's fragmentation. This fuels their suspicion of Europe as well as their doubts over the prospects of Turkey's entry into the EU.

A new metaphor

In this light, the real battle over Turkey's membership of the EU can be portrayed as one between the heart (anti-accession) and mind (pro-accession, or at least an ambivalent attitude). To understand developments in Turkey's EU accession adventure better, a new image is needed, to illuminate what is actually taking place and the challenges ahead. My preference would be a metaphor first used by one of the leading Turkish journalists and progressive thinkers, Mehmet Ali Birand. This is the strategy and tactics of the sport of rugby.

In this model, Turkish players (the Ankara government and the pro-accession parliamentary coalition) must aim for the goal-line where a try (accession) can be scored (achieved) only by exerting mighty strength in the field to overcome a series of obstacles; among the latter are implementing the acquis communautaire, domestic reforms, and structural economic changes; addressing human-rights issues; averting threats of veto; bypassing EU and Turkish sceptics; winning possible referendums; and solving the Cyprus conundrum.

Along the way, the Turks have to calculate, anticipate and plan for the movements of the opposing teams of member-states. These contests offer a range of challenges from adversaries with a variety of styles: moderately sceptical (Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), strongly sceptical (Austria and France), tactically sceptical (Greece and Cyprus), strongly enthusiastic (Britain, Spain, Finland, Bulgaria and Romania), moderately enthusiastic (Sweden, Portugal, Ireland and Italy) and diffident member states (Malta, and the central European countries) - all under the supervision of a referee (the European Commission).

The game is subject to strict rules and principles, and watched by a passionate crowd of European and Turkish spectators (the EU and Turkish publics, media, lobby groups and politicians) and international observers (the Muslim world and the United States).

There is an additional, critical factor of "unfairness", however, which Turkey must contend with: the accession "game" is not operating on a level playing-field, but one tilted upwards against Turkey by the way the rules are set and implemented.

An essential factor is the speed and determination of the Turkish team. The faster and more skilfully the players run with the ball (that is, being able to sustain momentum and depth in the reform process), the greater the likelihood of avoiding tackles from the opposite team and eventually passing the goal-line.

In the course of the game, and closely intertwined with their running skills, is the Turkish team's need to anticipate and counter the movements of the EU team. Here, Turkey enjoys four vital, normally overlooked, advantages - two of a "negative" and two of a "positive" kind.

The first is the nature of their opponents, taken as a whole. The EU team functions on the basis of consensus and compromise, and this will tend to advance the prospects of Turkish accession. The reason is that all member states - including the Turkey-sceptics - will be reluctant to see the collapse of the EU membership process as such, as this would bring with it grave strategic consequences for Europe.

Even Nicolas Sarkozy has noted that "the practice" in accession negotiations "demonstrates that no member state wants to appear to be the one to (block) a candidate state". Equally, the Greek and Greek Cypriot players must play rather than wreck the game, so as to use their only available leverage over Turkey. There is no "plan B" to accession. This seems to deprive the sceptics of options, thus weakening their position and moderating their approach.

The second advantage is that Turkey itself does not appear to have an appealing alternative to EU accession. Although alliances with Russia, the middle east, the United States or central Asia may appear attractive at first glance, on closer scrutiny they are not so feasible or felicitous. Unless the accession process ruptures due to insurmountable stresses and strains, Turkey is likely to continue to focus its energies on pursuing accession.

Also in openDemocracy’s "The future of Turkey" debate:

Reinhard Hesse, "Turkish honey under a German moon" (11 March 2004)

Alex Rondos, "Cyprus: the price of rejection" (22 April 2004)

Murat Belge, "Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome" (15 December 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe" (16 December 2004)

Daria Vaisman, "Turkey’s restriction, Europe’s problem"
(29 September 2006)

John Palmer, "A commonwealth for Europe"
(11 October 2006)

The third advantage is that the economic and political ties between Turkey and a number of the important EU players are growing. Many European companies - German, Austrian, French and Greek, to name but a few - are beginning to invest heavily in Turkey. Oil and gas pipelines are being planned, under construction or completed to diversify and secure European energy supplies. These are likely to facilitate the prospects of a Turkish accession that is underpinned by wider geopolitical factors: the continued presence (albeit adapted in light of the Iraq experience) of the United States in Turkey and the region, and Turkey's pivotal geographic location between Europe, the middle east, the Balkans, central Asia and the Caucasus.

As in any game, the dynamics of accession are, well, dynamic. Once economic negotiating chapters are opened (and 80% of the accession process is economic), the commercial and business interests of member states are expected to surge to the foreground. Turkey's vibrant and expanding economy means that this will change the nature of the accession process in Turkey's favour. Discussions then should become less dominated by political wrangles between  Turkey and Europe, and more by questions of institutional and regulatory upgrades, opening markets, competition and transparency.

The fourth advantage for Turkey is that the European Commission is an ally of Turkey, and is attempting shrewdly to alter the terms of the accession debate to facilitate its accession. A significant example here is its redefinition of the EU's ability to operate effectively after "digesting" a new member state from the negative-sounding and ill-defined "absorption capacity," to the more positive and technical-sounding "integration capacity". This shift of language promotes the benefits of a value-driven, frontier-neutral EU enlargement process that puts a premium on reforms in the candidate states, thus neatly combining practicality and responsibility.

A turbulent ride

A new metaphor, four advantages - but after all this, will accession happen? In politics, as in sport, predictions are fraught with imponderables. In the case of the European Union and Turkey, two factors may be vital to the outcome of the contest.

The European Union needs to maintain its appreciation of strategic interests, and not allow itself to be distracted by small-minded arguments. Turkey needs to accelerate and deepen the drive for reform, to attract major foreign investment flows, speed up job creation, and implement a radically improved and differentiated long-term communication programme.

If both sides play their part, the logical mind may ultimately triumph over the anxious heart, and accession should become a reality.

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