Obama’s plea to EU on Turkey carries risks

By Paul Taylor
April 6, 2009

Paul Taylor Great Debate– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Basking in adulation across Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama chose to expend some of his political capital to urge the European Union to open its doors to Turkey.

This public reaffirmation of long-standing U.S. policy fits in with Obama’s attempt to restore the United States’ standing in the Muslim world, using Turkey as a platform for his first state visit to a Muslim country. It also helps rebuild strategic ties with Ankara that sank to a low ebb under George W. Bush, when Turkey refused to allow U.S. forces to use its territory and airspace to invade Iraq.

And it contributed to convincing Turkish leaders at the weekend to drop their opposition to appointing the Danish prime minister as the new head of NATO.

But it risks raising unrealistic expectations that may cause deeper disenchantment between Turks and Europeans if the EU accession negotiations remain in a slow lane to nowhere.

Obama’s call drew an instant brush-off from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Sarkozy said it was up to EU members to decide who joins and that “the immense majority” of EU states opposed full Turkish membership. Merkel said there were obviously “differences of opinion.”


Although EU countries agreed unanimously in 2004 to start talks with Ankara with the goal of membership, some have since had second thoughts, due to hostile public opinion. France and Austria have made eventual accession subject to a referendum in their countries, raising the bar.

The talks have been hobbled by the Cyprus dispute, which led to the freezing of 8 of the 35 negotiating chapters, and by Sarkozy’s refusal to permit negotiation on policy areas that assume Turkish membership, putting another 5 off limits.

The main reason Obama cited for the EU to embrace Turkey — building ties with Muslims — is not the strongest selling point in Europe. Turkey’s qualifications include being a secular, democratic state with a vibrant market economy, a longstanding member of NATO and the Council of Europe and a strategically positioned energy hub.

His argument that Turkey has to be anchored firmly in Europe implies that it might otherwise drift off into Middle Eastern violence and religious intolerance, hardly a mark of confidence.

Turkey deserves EU membership if it meets the same criteria as all other candidates. These involve freedom of expression and the rule of law, as well as the capacity to adopt and implement more than 80,000 pages of European laws and regulations.

They require fundamental changes in the state established by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 that face resistance from nationalist elites in the army, the judiciary and the bureaucracy.

But Obama is right to warn Europeans they would do lasting harm if they are perceived to discriminate against Turkey because it is a Muslim country.


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Turkey has a long way to go to become a EU member. Oddly, while Ataturk was alive, Turkey was much more European than today. How could Turks aspire to be a part of Europe when their prime minister and president parade their wifes in headscarves, AND encourage the rest of the Turkish women to follow suit? If anything, since AKP came to power, Turks have been rowing backwards.
On the other hand, when Germans speak of Turks not being civilised enough, they must be forgetting the deeds of a genyleman called Adolf Hitler. So,Germans are in no position to lecture the Turks on being civilised.

Posted by cicero | Report as abusive

There are pros and cons on almost everything. Everybody talks about why Turkey should not be part of EU. But no one really talks about why Turkey should be part of EU. many ordinary people like myself look at this issue with one sided perspective which is “Religion” But many of you are not focusing on other important reasons why Turkey should be part of EU. Obama and some politicians analyzing this issue by listing all pros and cons together. At the end many people don’t even notice that EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs EU. Simply due to economics, population, workforce, market, natural resources, geographic position, many more…. and many of you look at this issue short term. In the long run EU will gain much more with Turkey than without Turkey. It is just simple math. In my opinion, people should focus on future peace, not previous hate and discrimination.

Posted by Farah | Report as abusive

I guess from the same reasons most of our friends mention, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina are not part of Europe while all their neighbours are part of “Europe”. And Russia is just a gas-petroleum dealer for Europe, and they should shut up and dont tell their opinions when time comes. China also should serve Europe-West as a cheap factory base and should not say their word in world affairs… In Cyprus Greek guerillas did not slaughter ethnic Turkish citizens, maybe they committed suicide just to make a reason for Turkey to occupy? (And not only once, twice 1960s-1974) Armenians were totally naive, they did not slaughter whole villages and cities in the eastern Anatolia before 1915… The biased thinking leads you such conclusions. You may also forget soon that Serbian war criminals killed 8000 innocents in Hodjali in one day, while “European” Peacekeepers (!) watched the case…

I think Europe should change its snobbish attitude towards the rest of the world. Thats the reason why now US is superpower, thats why Obama and Americans see themselves in power to advice you what to do since 1945, because they can ” change ” and enjoy efficient, multi-ethnic, multi-religion human resources and are not bounded in the details of history. At the same time, racism is in high levels even between EU citizens.

Thats all I would say, of course Turkey should change for the good of its citizens and we as citizens will do our best for it. I would also add that we are not worse than new members of EU in that process. In the end we will see what happens. The rest is politics which is very much biased in Europe including TR…

Posted by levent | Report as abusive

The European Friends, I understand you feel free to comment on what the USA does and doesn’t all the time, but the expressing any idea on EU politics is off-limits when it comes to the USA. Perhaps the USA should not have saved France from German occupation in the second world war, noticing that this is a intra-European matter as well.Or perhaps the French would have shown more resistance to occupantion that time than they do now towards the USA and Turkey.

As a Turkish citizen, I would myself vote “no” in a referandum today to becoming a full EU members. Turkey should comntinue strenghtening ties wtih the USA, Turks should continue work hard, attrack local and foregn ivestments and continue reaching the growth rates that EU can’t even see in her wildest dreams. Aging Europe with constant use of its compettiveness and attractiveness would only be burden in Turkey’s future. when the time comes EU will want to join “Turkey” perhaps.

I urge the Turkish politicians to drop the membership application and/or Sarkozy/Merkel and some others to end the hypocrical approach ans should simply put a full stop to negotiations, by stopping intented delays.

One little reminder to my Greek and Cypriot frinds, tell me who made the military cup in the united Island of Cyprus in 1974 and killed hundreds of innnocent Turks there mostly children and women, against which Turkish troops wnet to the island. SECONDLY, WHO VOTED NO IN 2004 REFERANDUM IN CYPRUS, THAT WOULD UNIFY ISLAND AND END THE “SO CALLED INVASION”. I would be pleased if some one answers those questions.

Posted by NO-TO-EU | Report as abusive

I think the broader issue at stake here is the modernization of countries that are still stuck with antiquated human rights practices. Obama’s goal is not to “westernize” Turkey or change the fundamental culture of the country. He is simply looking to improve the lives of people that are persecuted every day for race or religious beliefs. The European Union may be the wrong vehicle for that change in this case; Turkey is definitely not your typical European nation, but it is the best option available in this case. This is about human rights, not politics, and the EU is the most sensible opportunity for the necessary changes to be implemented in Turkey.

Nasty article and nasty comments…

Posted by fedez | Report as abusive

You want to know why France wants to make Turkish inclusion subject to a referendum ? Because immigration has proven to be a CATASTROPHE for that country ! The integration of other cultures is a noble thought, but it DON’T work ! Canada is another prime example of how a society can unravel when immigrants insist upon living in their adoptive country as if they had never left their home country. No one in Canada identifies any longer with being CANADIAN (with the possible exception of a few players on a hockey team). Everyone is either Ukrainian, Honduran, Haitian, Italian, Jewish, etc. The Americans had great foresight when they created the notion of the ‘Melting-pot’. If fact, no other system seems to work.

Posted by Sanat | Report as abusive

Yes, Farah….but what will be the price!???????????
EU dependence from Turkey , very unbalance….good try.
It is focusing in future PEACE that thee ie all about.
These is a partenrship matter, protetection of population, HUMAN BEING LIFES-Populations involved, that depend on, not politics, or hate, or economics, or convinience for one side or another or simply blog chat.

Posted by Maria | Report as abusive

This issue is for Europeans and not for Americans to deal with. If we take in Turkey, why not Morocco or Egypt? and Tunisia and Libya… or, instead, make Turkey America’s 51 state if Obama likes them so much…

Our problem here in the U.S. is that most Americans would not be able to locate Turkey on a map, let alone grasp the outlines of the situation. We have the same problem with Pakistan.

It appears that our knowledge of the world grows mostly after having had a war in a region. A certain number of people (few) end up having insights into a region or a people, but this knowledge is neglected and ends up vanishing in a short time.

It seems to me that our nation should be engaging Turkey on many levels, but we do not have the competence yet to be making pronouncements. I was pleased to hear President Obama emphasize that he was there (in Europe and the Middle East) to listen, but isn’t it astonishing that some people attacked him even for that?

I am even getting tired of listening to myself say “Look at the record.” It’s the same story over and over again. We don’t learn and seem to have little desire to.