The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Is Europe pushing Turkey eastward?

The Free Gaza flotilla debacle has led many to question Israel's direction and its strategic thinking. The flip side of this is that many are doing the same for Turkey - with equally good reason.

Bob Gates has made rather strident comments in this regard, essentially accusing the European Union of pushing Turkey away from the west and away from Israel.

"I personally think that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought."

While developments such as the sharp deterioration of Israel-Turkey relations are clearly a source of concern, is it accurate to say that this forms part of an eastward movement from Ankara?

The article quotes a senior US State Department official involved in U.S. policy toward Turkey, who argues that Turkey continues to attach importance to its relationship with the West and that its new found role in the region is part of "the most activist Turkish foreign policy that we've probably ever seen," rather than a conscious effort to break with Europe and the U.S.

"I don't think it's accurate to say they're turning away from the West. What they are doing is adding on a much more activist role in their neighbourhood to their traditional strategic relationship with us and Europe and the West."

If this is indeed the case then it would be perfectly logical from Ankara's point of view. Turkey's biggest selling point is its strategic location - the more good relationships Turkey has with as many of its neighbours as possible the more added value it can bring to its relationship with the west - both the U.S. and the EU.

However, let us accept for a moment that there is indeed an eastward trend in Ankara's foreign policy, just as Gates says. Is it fair to apportion all the blame to the EU? According to Turkish diplomat Tuncay Babali, it is indeed fair.

"What Secretary Gates said is right on target. Turks are sick and tired of being judged on individual issues such as whether they support certain Western policies, rather than being accepted as a significant partner."

There is possibly a degree of truth in that - the public debate on Turkey's potential EU membership does focus heavily on specific issues, rather than the broader strategic picture. Given that Turkey's biggest contribution would be geostrategic reach and influence, an issue-specific lens is the wrong one through which to look at the bigger picture.

However, this is a two-way street. What makes Turkey a significant partner is, again, its geostrategic reach. While Turkey is doing good work with Afghanistan and Pakistan through the tripartite commission, this is overshadowed by its increasingly acrimonious relations with Israel. Furthermore, the success of Turkey's attempt to establish itself as a mediator between, for example, Syria and the west remains open for debate. In short, what added value would Turkey bring to the EU right now?

In any case, even if we are to adopt the narrow perspective, Turkey has not delivered on the specific issues in question - above all Cyprus, an EU member. If the EU were to compromise on the Cypriot question then what kind of signal does it send to its other newer members? Incidentally, I do not include recognition of the Armenian genocide among those issues. Turkey has not delivered on that either but the west has been complicit for too long in Turkey's failure to acknowledge what happened. To use that against Turkey now is shameless hypocrisy.

In short, its true that Turkey has some reason to feel aggrieved at its treatment from the European Union but only to a certain extent. The European Union would indeed do well to re-evaluate its approach to the Turkish question but, at the same time, the bloc is perfectly entitled to defend its interests and set its own threshold for membership.

Integrating Turkey would be a huge step and conditions must be right. At the moment, conditions are clearly not right for obvious economic reasons within Europe but, as the Ergenekon trial continues into its third year, they are not right in Turkey either. Is Gates seriously telling Europe that it should countenance bringing Turkey into the fold while grave questions remain over the possible existence of a 'deep State' which plotted to overthrow a democratically-elected government through chaos and mayhem?

In the light of all this, Gates' criticism appears unjustified and rather one-sided in fact. Perhaps some in Europe are indeed refusing to give Turkey the 'organic link' that Turkey wants but the reverse is equally true.

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