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Op-Ed

Turkey and the EU

The whole world knows that Turkey does not want an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. The best way to ensure that Kurds stay loyal to Baghdad is to actually help the United States rather than constantly complain about Washington’s secret plan to establish a Kurdish state. It is exactly such a suspicious and conspiracy-prone frame of mind that fuels Turkish anti-Americanism

Now that Ankara has a date to start accession negotiations with the European Union, the risk facing Turkey is complacency. There is no denying that Turkey displayed an impressive political performance in the last couple of years. Yet, it is too early for “reform fatigue”. It is certainly not the right time to relax or to engage in gratuitous nationalism in the form of anti-Americanism. The more difficult part of Turkey’s European journey still lies ahead. And antagonising the United States will prove counterproductive.

The forthcoming negotiations with the EU will present the real test of Turkey’s democratic maturity and political stability. There is no doubt that the slightest sign of political turmoil in Turkey will bolster anti-Turkey sceptics in the EU and derail membership negotiations. While avoiding any trouble at home, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) will have to pursue a farsighted and balanced foreign policy with both the European Union and the United States. This will not be easy. Events in Europe, Iraq and Turkey can easily go in the wrong direction for Prime Minister Erdogan.

Let’s start with Europe. Turkey needs to be ready for critical developments in its neighbourhood. No one should be surprised if Ukraine soon applies for EU membership. This will be good for Ukraine but hardly good news for Ankara. Kiev’s EU bid will provide a golden opportunity for European politicians who want to keep Turkey at arm’s length. Instead of a fast track to full membership, Ankara may soon find itself in the same basket with Kiev for a “privileged partnership” with Brussels. If that sounds unrealistic, wait till the German Christian Democrats and the popular French leader Nicholas Sarkozy come to power in 2006 and 2007.

While unable to re-negotiate Turkey’s terms of accession, German Christian Democrats and Nicholas Sarkozy will certainly do their best to slow Turkey’s negotiation process. They will also relentlessly lobby within the EU for a “special partnership” with Ankara. This may legally be impossible but politically feasible, particularly if Turkey fails to implement and enforce its democratic reforms.

Turkey may also be up for a rude awakening on the Western front of the EU because of another likely scenario: A British “No” to the referendum on the EU constitution. This would surely trigger an existentialist debate about the European Union, this time about the Western borders of the Union. Brussels’s answer to such a crisis would most probably be a conciliatory dose of “variable geometry”. This, in Euro-speak amounts to “Europe a la carte.” In other words, countries would be allowed to pick and choose what parts of EU policies and institutions they want to be associated with. Yet, for Turkey and Ukraine the menu may not be as rich as for some of the earlier EU customers. As “guests” rather than full-time members of the club, they are likely to be offered a fixed-menu with no dessert.

The bottom line is that Ankara needs to be ready for a serious debate about the borders of Europe that may end up marginalising Turkey under the technical guise of “variable geometry.” Much will depend on the Franco-German elections, the British referendum and developments in Ukraine. For its part, the Erdogan government should work hard not to give political and economic ammunition to European sceptics. This will require political stability, economic growth and no hint of military-civilian tension in Turkey. The AKP will therefore have to refrain from challenging the secular establishment on issues such as headscarves and religious education.

It would also mean that Turkey should avoid anti-American and anti-Kurdish rhetoric, vis a vis events in northern Iraq. Turkey is one of the few countries that have questioned the legitimacy of elections in Iraq. It is one thing to have legitimate concerns about maximalist Kurdish intentions over the oil-rich of Kirkuk. It is quite another when you miss the picture of democratisation in all of Iraq. Turkey should think about adopting a constructive approach rather than fantasising about conspiracy theories. A good place to start is to co-opt rather than confront Iraqi Kurds.

The whole world knows that Turkey does not want an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. The best way to ensure that Kurds stay loyal to Baghdad is to actually help the United States rather than constantly complain about Washington’s secret plan to establish a Kurdish state. It is exactly such a suspicious and conspiracy-prone frame of mind that fuels Turkish anti-Americanism.

The current rift in transatlantic relations is certainly not helpful. But especially after President Bush’s successful trip to Europe and his support for the EU integration process, it would be a grave mistake for Turkey to think about the United States and the European Union as mutually exclusive alternatives. Nothing could be more damaging to Turkey’s western orientation in the long run. And of all Turkish political parties, it is the AKP that should be most concerned about maintaining Turkey’s western orientation on track.

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