One sure way to ruin a good dinner party in Paris or Berlin is to bring up the contentious subject of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. While the hostess glares at you, the usual polite dinner-time babble degenerates into competing salvos of rhetorical artillery for and against the Turkish membership. “The EU needs the shot-in-the-arm a fast growing young Turkey would bring,” claim the few proponents of Turkish membership. “Rubbish,” fires back an opponent from the across the fois gras, “The only things Turkey would bring are chaos and huge outflows from our budget!” And so it goes.
The pro/con arguments are becoming stale and less convincing with passing time. While there are some serious reasons to question Turkey’s membership, one recent paper ventures into the bizarre. The authors suggest that Turkey does not fully share a European identity (whatever that is) because it did not participate in World War II and therefore does not possess the required commitment to peace, individual rights, and democracy. Right. Can one then assume that the memberships of Sweden, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are somewhat suspect because they remained neutral during the war? The paper also argues that Turkey has only recently and tentatively emerged from the authoritarian Kemalist military/judicial domination and has not developed a strong enough ‘real’ democracy. One could make the same argument about Spain and Portugal emerging from decades of brutal dictatorships or Greece recently emerged from military rule when it was admitted in 1981. What about recent entrants Bulgaria and Romania? In short, the claim may be true, but is meaningless given the history of recent entrants into the European Union.
Professor Bahri Yilmaz, in another paper in the same journal, mentions what is perhaps the major stumbling block to Turkey’s membership. It is simply too large. It is one thing to absorb the Baltic states, Malta, Cyprus, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania whose combined population does not equal Turkey’s. But Turkey’s population of 75 million would immediately gain it a seat at the high table of European policy making. Only Germany would, for the time being, have more votes than Turkey. Many current members of the EU would find it very hard to accept that a country who has not been an integral part of the union since it was formed should assume such power. If the EU is embarrassed by the hard-line regressive positions of small Hungary what would it do with Turkey that in many ways is equally hard-line and self-righteous -- and eight times larger?
Professor Yilmaz also discusses the foreign policy implications of the EU decision. If Turkey were somehow to join the union it would enjoy the full privileges and responsibilities of membership. Consequently, the EU also would then be injected more directly into Middle Eastern issues by virtue of its borders now extending to Iran, Iraq and Syria. This is not a prospect that thrills many European Union members. Would Turkey accede to the EU’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and its definition of Hamas as a terrorist organization? Or would it use its weight to force a gentler EU position toward Iran and various radical Arab organizations and states? I imagine these would be interesting, somewhat heated discussions.
What are the options if its membership bid is rejected, or the Turks get fed up with waiting in the outer harbor while lesser countries go sailing in? The Turkish government puts on a brave face and says that membership doesn’t really matter and that Turkey would continue on its way upward and onward. The government is currently benefitting at the polls by playing on the people’s resentment at the EU’s treatment of Turkey. It is stoking the already fervent Turkish nationalism and sense of grievance against the rest of the world. “A Turk has no friend but a Turk” is a long-standing, popular sentiment.
But can Turkey really go it alone? Brave words, but such a move is questionable. Turkey is large, but unlike Brazil, India or China, not large enough to forge a completely independent foreign policy. What about trying to join the Arab League? This option is not very likely given the strong resistance of countries like Egypt that resent attempts by non-Arab Turkey to meddle in Arab affairs. Could Turkey turn to historical adversary Russia for comfort? Despite a long and bloody history this idea may not be as far-fetched as first appears. A journalist friend told me that Vladimir Putin suggested nothing less at a meeting with Turkish journalists in Moscow. The mutual economic interests of the two countries are growing stronger every day, and Russia is the main supplier of natural gas to Turkey. But Moscow is not well known for giving its friends and allies a great deal of flexibility in managing their own affairs. There are many in Turkey who believe the embrace of the bear could be a bit suffocating.
Barring some major geo-political event that forces the EU’s hand one way or another, one possible outcome is that Turkey and the EU agree to disagree. Turkey will continue to benefit from close economic, duty-free ties to the EU but will not be part of the political decision making process. In some ways this may not be a bad option. Turkey could surely extract some serious economic concessions from the EU by agreeing to postpone indefinitely its application, and simultaneously edge even closer to the United States -- at least behind the scenes. Turkey would be free to continue its prickly independence without becoming totally isolated. It would be very difficult for Turkey’s axis to slip too far away from the West. No matter how close it grows to Iran or the Arab countries they are simply no match for the economic importance of Europe or the political weight of the United States. Its politicians may exclaim loudly about the proud, independent role that a resurgent Turkey will play on the world stage. But outside observers should carefully distinguish how much of this is for domestic consumption and how much these proclamations represent a realistic alternative to a modified status quo.