Why the West needs Turkey

Nicolas Sarkozy’s flat rejection of Turkey’s EU membership bid does not mean the game is up for Ankara. France’s ambitious interior minister believes he is a natural successor

to Jacques Chirac. But he has not been elected president yet and will not be if the centre-left’s likely candidate, Segolene Royal, has her way next spring. Nor does he run the EU.

All the same, Sarkozy’s views, when coupled with the hostile attitude of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other European leaders, make discouraging reading for the Turks. “We should deepen relations with Turkey but without going as far as full membership,” he said in Brussels. “We have to say who is European and who isn’t. It’s no longer possible to leave this question open.” Sarkozy’s negative positioning reduces the incentives for Turkey to comply with EU demands ahead of next month’s (October) “progress report” by Olli Rehn, the enlargement chief.

They include the abolition of laws limiting freedom of expression that often give rise to nationalist show trials, such as that due later this month of Elif Shafak, a best-selling author accused of “insulting Turkishness”.

EU demands also focus on the treatment of Turkey’s disadvantaged Kurdish minority, dependable economic management in the wake of June’s currency crisis, and Cyprus. The EU contributed to this latter problem by admitting the island in 2004 without insisting the majority Greek Cypriots accept the UN’s peace plan.

Now, predictably, they and Greeks are threatening dire consequences if Turkey does not open its ports to Greek Cypriot trade. Turkish Cypriots say any such move should be reciprocal.

Opinion polls suggest the European cold-shouldering of Turkey is having a wider public impact. Last week’s Transatlantic Trends survey by the German Marshall Fund found that 32 per cent of Europeans regarded Turkey’s EU membership as a “bad thing”.

Turkish opinion “has cooled towards the US and Europe but has warmed to Iran”. American and British governments have long viewed majority Muslim Turkey as a bridge to the Islamic world. But such growing goodwill towards George Bush’s “Tehran tyrants” may be seen as a bridge too far. European leaders are pushing Turkey away when the West needs it more than ever.

Despite strong domestic opposition, Ankara agreed last week to contribute up to 1,000 troops to UN peacekeeping in Lebanon, giving a Muslim complexion to a predominantly European, French-led effort.

“We have many important capabilities to offer the EU,” said a Turkish diplomat. “We talk to the Iranians from time to time. We are not mediators but we try to ensure both sides

understand each other.

We have good relations with both Israel and the Palestinians. Turkey has been an important force for stability in Iraq.”

The EU might also reflect on Turkey’s growing role as an alternative, non-Russian route for Caspian and central Asian oil and gas, as a rare democratic partner in the Islamic world and in fighting terrorism, the diplomat said.

“Joining the EU remains a major foreign policy objective. Most Turks still support this. We will keep working on this. But Europe should understand it needs Turkey, too.” — The Guardian