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Can Turkey Talk Tough with the EU? (Part 1)

December 13, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

In September 1999, when I was first becoming acquainted with the realities of Turkish life, I encountered an American soldier in Istanbul. He had been stationed at Incirlik for some time, knew Turkish, and possessed a keen understanding of the country and its culture. What he told me then, it appears, has played out to its inexorable conclusion today.

In the aftermath of the massive earthquakes in Greece and Turkey the month before, a new level of bilateral cooperation had been reached. The Greeks helped the Turks, and vice versa, in coping with these sudden humanitarian disasters.

But the real earthquake, from the European point of view, came in the aftermath of this event, when Greece dropped its veto on Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. For the first time, Europe was confronted with the real prospect of Turkey’s becoming an EU member.

“Before this,” the American soldier told me, “the northern European countries had been apologizing to Turkey, saying, ‘we’d love to have you in the club, if it wasn’t for those Greeks.’ However, now that the Greeks dropped their veto, the ball is in their court, and they are desperately trying to find excuses to keep Turkey out.”

While the oft-stated reasons of Turkey’s cultural and religious differences from the EU states substantiated the bulk of the latter’s fears, there were other reasons besides, both political and economic. And so began the long saga of fulfilling the high and mighty orders that issued forth from Brussels and Strasbourg, about human rights and language rights for Kurds, etc., all of which Turkey performed obediently and without much grumbling.

Then came Iraq. When the Turkish Parliament courageously vetoed an arrogant American request to use the country as a launching pad for war in February 2003, Turkey proved itself firmly on the side of the European Union. This was a somewhat brave move, considering that Turkey was aligning itself with a political entity that had proven less than trustworthy and fair in the past, instead of with a world superpower that had given unflinching support for it.

Turkey’s gutsy decision left US officials speechless. As Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council wrote then, Washington “…can hardly punish the country over the parliamentary vote in a genuinely democratic process.”

Aligning itself with Europe over America was unprecedented, and instantly increased Turkey’s stature within Europe, as a state with harmonious foreign policy views in regards to vital strategic decisions. It does not matter all that much if after the fact, the Turkish military more quietly has provided support to the Americans; after all, “antiwar” EU states Ireland and Germany allowed the Americans respectively to fly military planes over and move troops from their countries even during the war. And it is not an especially remarkable thing, considering the Turkish minority in Iraq, that the security sources have been forced to create contacts with individuals and groups in northern Iraq who would seem rather unseemly company to keep.

The important thing was the overt statement of policy in February 2003. It coincided with the EU position in two respects: one, it was largely symbolic, and two, it heeded the desires of the majority of its people. It thus proved that both predominantly Muslim and predominantly Christian nations could manifest democratic action, and that, most surprisingly to some, such different populations could in fact sometimes be naturally in agreement.

More recently, Turkey stepped up its military aid to eastern neighbor Georgia, seeking to shore up the latter in its constant feuds with Russia. This support for Georgia is consonant with both European and American foreign policy objectives for the south Caucasus. However, the constructive recent visit of President Putin also shows that Turkey is eager to develop a partnership with Russia in trade and other areas.

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