Obama’s plea to EU on Turkey carries risks
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.