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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

State of play, Turkey-EU relations, part 2

This is the second post reflecting on the current obstacles to progress in the accession negotiations. Part one listed three items as key problem areas: The visa waiver issue, Cyprus, and the slower pace of Turkish reforms. I now turn to two sets of items that pertain to challenges internal to the EU.

4. Xenophobia in the EU
This issue is one that I deal with continuously on this blog. It has long historical roots, not the least when it comes to prejudices about Muslims as well as Turks. These go back to Pope Clement IV's calls in 1342 for a crusade against “those unbelieving pagans, called in the vernacular the Turks, who thirst for the blood of Christian people and seek the destruction of the Catholic faith.” Or to the standard Exhortatio ad bellum contra barbaros that became a staple of Renaissance-era diplomatic congresses, royal weddings and "almost any public occasion," as historian Robert Schwoebel put it. The so-called "barbaros" against whom this formulaic call to war was supposed to be directed were, as you might have suspected, Ottoman Turks.

Too many actors in what is today the EU have for too long defined Europe and Europeans by contrasting them against a prejudiced view of Turkey and Turks. And this historical legacy has a continued impact on today's thinking about Europe, as illustrated e.g. by outgoing EU Commissioner Fritz Bolkestein's notorious remark (on the eve of the start of membership negotiations with Turkey in 2004), that Europe may be predominantly Islamic by the end of the century, which would mean that the "liberation of Vienna will have been in vain." His not-so-contemporary reference is to the breaking of the Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683...

With the post-9/11 panic about Islamic fundamentalism and Jihadist terrorism in the West, these age-old fears gained new life, and resistance to Turkish accession grew in the EU. In this light, it becomes easier to understand what otherwise might appear like a paradox: that with each major Turkish pro-democratic reform package, support for Turkish membership in the EU has seemed to cool. Between 2002 and today, Turkey has enacted substantial and extensive democratic reforms, but support for Turkey in the EU has steadily dropped. For many (though certainly not for all), concern over Turkish human rights abuses is just a cover for other fears, and for these people, bringing Turkey closer in line with the Copenhagen political criteria is not at all reassuring: it is frightening because it raises the prospects of Turkish membership.

Add to this renewed general anti-immigration sentiments throughout Europe, with the extreme right gaining ground in elections throughout the continent, and the picture looks bleak from the Turkish point of view.

Not even the more recent developments in North Africa seem to help Turkey's standing in the eyes of the common man in the EU. The "Arab spring" should probably be praised as on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall in terms of what it means for the progress of worldwide democracy. And Turkey's importance as a model for the fledgling/aspiring democracies of Egypt and the Maghreb should underline it strategic significance. But in Europe people seem mostly worried about increased refugee flows from Libya. None of this helps Turkey, which is already associated with immigration in the eyes of many Austrians and Germans.

But there are more problems than that of xenophobia in the EU of today. The discussion of North-Africa is a nice segue into some other issues that really have nothing to do with Turkey, but which I believe nevertheless contribute to the current stalemate.

5. Unrelated problems in the EU.
For the EU's fumbling response to the Libyan revolt and civil war has revealed (or worsened or created) deep fissures within the Union, as the major European powers - Germany, the UK, Italy, and France - came down on different sides on the question of what to do with Gaddafi. The participants at a recent full-day conference at the Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs (titled "The EU as a Global Actor: Lessons from the Arab Spring") were unanimous in their judgment that the EU failed the "Libyan test" miserably.

And we must not forget (although how could we) the current crisis affecting the Euro-zone. It appears increasingly likely that Greece is heading for a default (or "restructuring" as the euphemism has it) on its debt. (Personally, I find it difficult to see how Greece is supposed to "cut" its way out of its recession, but hey, I'm no economist. I'm sure there is a beautifully elegant and parsimonious neo-classical law that shows just how throwing hordes of government workers into the unemployment benefits system is a great way of reducing the deficit and how slashing the salaries of those that still have a job is an excellent way of infusing demand into the economy and boosting consumer spending...)

Even so, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even Italy are next in line for the investors' treatment. And no one really knows what the future holds for the Euro. What we do know is that Germany is increasingly reluctant to help out the Greeks, and that Finland's established parties have been forced to welcome a brand new party - the True Finns - to their group, a party whose only real election platform was a rejection of more aid to Greece (OK, that's not entirely True, they also ran on an anti-immigration platform).

None of this has anything directly to do with Turkey or its accession negotiations. But it adds up to an EU that is preoccupied with internal squabbling over foreign policy and economics, and struggling to salvage both the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the newly established European External Action Service as well as the very future of the Euro.

This EU has little time or energy over to take on the many tough decisions it would need to make to jump-start negotiations with Turkey. A badly damaged Angela Merkel would have little desire to open up a new political front at home by e.g. making concessions on Visa-free travel toward Turks, even if she felt that it was the right thing to do.

So with these five main hurdles, my suspicion is that the Turkish accession negotiations will at best muddle through for the time being, and that we are unlikely to see an major breakthrough in the near future. I hope I am wrong.


  1. As long as EU is internally not united and moving in 'different speed' for its members it could not start efficient negotiations for next enlargement. Old member states and their citizens think that EU has nothing in common with the EU as it was created. There are too many curtural differencies within. However cultural and historical diversity should serve as a stable basis not divide. I believe that one day EU will be integal community where my kids will be born in Ireland for instance, will grow up in Italy, will study in the Netherlands, work in Poland and settle their families in Hungary or Danmark but everywhere, no matter what country they will be proud of being EU-citizens. In fact the challenge for EU is accepting its neighbours.

  2. Hi Mariya, thanks for your thoughts. My hunch is that the Greek crisis will lead to an even greater differentiation between member states, and increasingly different "speeds," or levels of integration. But the EU doesn't seem so preoccupied with these issues that it can't decide to accept Croatia as a new member.

    And I must ask: would you like to see Turkey as part of the community you envisage, so that your kids could work/study/settle in Istanbul?


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