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Turkey’s Relations with EU

Interview with Ali Tekin, Associate Professor
Department of International Relations, Bilkent University

Introduction and Question: I will ask questions on this subject to Asso. Professor Ali Tekin of Bilkent University International Relations: There are a number of negative signals from the European Union: First is the suspension of eight chapters in the negotiation process; then, speeches by the President of France Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy during the election campaign; although Mrs. Merkel, the German Chancellor has softened its rhetoric about offering a special relationship status to Turkey, her assistants and other CD and CSU leaders continue harping on the same theme and finally the negotiation process is an open ended one and this year only one chapter has been opened for negotiations. Under these conditions how do you assess the future of Turkish EU relations?

Ali Tekin: One should look into possible scenarios for the future of Turkish-EU relations. I think there are four possibilities two of which are more realistic than the others in the next decade. As you look to the future of the conditions of today two are more possible. In the first of all four scenarios, an easy ride to Turkey ’s full membership is not clear and not easy to be realized, at least for the next decade.  The other radical alternative is that Turkey totally departs from the EU process; but that will not happen either, because Turkey and EU are closely linked in many ways, and it is extremely difficult to isolate the two from each other. Both sides have deeply rooted common interests at least in maintaining the level of relations they have currently. Of the other more realistic alternatives, one is the special relationship status- an alternative favoured by Merkel and Sarkozy. The other realistic alternative is the adoption of a “wait and see” attitude on both sides. What this means is that both sides put on hold the membership process for another decade or so.  At least for the time being the last scenario, the “wait and see” attitude, is prevailing. Currently in the EU there are problems at least the problem of situating the EU in the global politics and the global economy. And there are a number of other issues that are not decided upon internally. For example there are important transformations to be made in Europe to adapt to the conditions of global economy. This transformation has not yet been made although big countries like Germany and France are trying to carry out this transformation. Therefore, economically and politically things are not very clear in Europe today. In these conditions of turmoil in Europe, EU does not have a concrete policy towards Turkey. If they have any policy, that is negative rather than positive. But in the long run this negative policy could become counter-productive for the EU countries. Therefore, there want to keep Turkey on hold for full membership; but they cannot at the same time tolerate the cost of totally excluding Turkey. Therefore, of the four scenarios, the most realistic one is the continuation of this wait and see attitude for another decade or so.

On the Turkish side also there are growing doubts about EU attitude towards Turkey.  I think the initial optimism is gone and there is a sense of pessimism towards the EU but that too can change; yet, it may go on for a while because for the most part it depends on the attitude of EU.

Q- You are absolutely right on this point. What I would like to recall that way back in 1970s we were even then talking about European policies towards Turkey. This attitude was then summarized as “keep Turkey on top of the garden wall- not inside not outside”.  This policy was possible and feasible during the cold war, as Turkey relied on the West for its security strategies. At the end of the cold war there was a new situation and economic growth and political reforms of Turkey led EU to accept Turkey as a candidate in 1999 and begin membership negotiation in 2005 but now there seems be reversion to the policies of the cold war as you very well explained by the policy of “keep them in the waiting room”. That was viable policy during the cold war but that may be so now. As all of us have witnessed recently there is a growing pressure in Turkey to opt a more individualistic foreign policy in the region. Is this a viable alternative policy for Turkey?

Ali Tekin: I think you are right that the attitude in Turkey towards the European Union is becoming more negative; but I think this is more of a result of the gap between expectation of the membership in the European Union and the realization of the current difficulties and the downturn in the process. This time, the backlash and negative attitude towards EU in Turkey is more solid. Therefore it should be taken very seriously compared with the anti-European sentiments, if there was any, in the past.  In the past anti-Europeanism did not dominate the minds of the public at large, perhaps it had more to do with elites, but today the situation is quite the opposite. I think the people have developed expectations from the EU but as the expectations are not realized the attitudes have turned highly negative. So this should be taken very seriously. As you pointed out after the Cold War people are more aware of the fact there are other possibilities for Turkey as there are more centres of gravity and power around the globe. During the Cold War there were only the West and the East and one had to look one way or the other. But today economically speaking there are China and India rising; militarily speaking Russia is gaining strength, in terms of ideology political Islam has become a very solid one in the Middle East and beyond. So I think Turkish public and any average Turk expectedly  develop interest in these different currents and ideologies developing in the region and around the globe. Therefore I think the governments in Turkey have to be quite careful about catering to differing feelings of the people. In terms of foreign policy Turkey has become a more difficult country to run especially in a democratic environment where they have to take into account of the feelings and policy preferences of their electorate. As a result, one would expect a more positive attitude towards the Islamic world and that could become an important sentiment among the people in Turkey. Another one may be having better relations with Russia. During the Cold War this was a scary thought but it is no longer. There are also people who are interested in what the others are doing. For example, how China, India and other fast developing countries are doing things. So, in that sense the Turkish public opinion is becoming more pluralistic.

At a macro level what is most interesting is that in the past Turkey’s policy was in harmony with that of the West.  Now there is a sense of “pick and choose” from a menu of options. Similarly, the West does not seem to have a comprehensible policy towards Turkey. The outcome is that the American leverage on Turkey is getting weaker and weaker, leading to more individualistic policies on the part of Turkey . The European “anchor” also is weakening. I believe that the weakening of the Turkish anchor with the West will ultimately work against Western interests. Therefore, it is quite necessary for the West to pay attention to what the Turkish state and Turkish people at large feel about the Western attitude towards Turkey ranging from the issues of terrorism, Iraq to the mode of the EU negotiations. And they should not take Turkish foreign policy for granted as they did in the past. If Turkey and the West grow apart, it will cost both sides.

Subject: “ Turkey’s Relations with the European Union: The outlook for the Future

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