October 23, 2009
Turkey turns east as Europe clings to past
By Philip Stephens
Small incidents can illuminate a bigger picture. A couple of weeks ago, President Abdullah Gul of Turkey opened an exhibition of Ottoman treasures in Paris. The display is the centrepiece of an effort to promote Turkey’s rich heritage. Mr Gul was joined by Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president arrived chewing a piece of gum.
I was told this story during a visit to Istanbul. Mr Sarkozy’s gum-chewing, I heard, served as a metaphor for France’s disdain for Turkey’s European aspirations. The lack of respect set the tone for the two leaders’ working lunch at the Elysée Palace. The atmosphere was described as “polite”. We know what that means.
French officials will doubtless protest that the swaggering Mr Sarkozy had not intended any slight. The president of the French republic has never fully acquainted himself with diplomatic niceties. Yet the sensitivity of his guest was unsurprising. Mr Sarkozy has put himself in the vanguard of European leaders – they include Germany’s Angela Merkel – who are viscerally opposed to Turkish accession to the European Union.
It is half a century since Turkey first knocked on Europe’s door with a bid to join the Common Market. There were plenty of detours on the way to the start of formal accession talks in 2004. Often, it must be said, the fault lay with Turkey. Military coups and political repression did not help make the case for membership of Europe’s democratic club.
That was then. Turkey is still a long way from meeting the democratic terms of EU membership, but few can doubt that it has taken big steps in the right direction. It is the fear that Turkey is within sight of doing what has been asked of it that has led Mr Sarkozy and others to repudiate the original bargain. Admitting Turkey, Mr Sarkozy says, would “dilute” the Union. What he really means is that Europe does not want 70-odd million Muslims.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s political classes have run short of patience. They are not interested in the “privileged partnership” offered as a substitute for EU membership. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has decided to look eastwards.
Turkey is establishing itself as a power-broker and a peace-maker in the Middle East. It is fixing troubled relationships with its neighbors. And it is finding the respect it receives in Arab capitals a lot more convivial than the snubs it is accustomed to in Europe.
Mr Erdogan set out the strategy at the inaugural meeting this week of the Istanbul Forum, hosted by Turkey’s Centre for Strategic Communication, and supported by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The government, said Mr Erdogan, would continue to pursue its European vocation. But it has no intention of behaving as a helpless supplicant. Turkey is instead assuming a role commensurate with its status as a fast-rising power at the strategic crossroads of east and west.
The strategy has been a big success. A few years ago, Turkey massed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Syria because of that country’s support for PKK Kurdish separatists. Now, detente has seen the two countries open the frontier to visa-free travel. There has been a rapprochement with the Iraqi government and an effort to reach an accommodation with the Kurdish minority. Trade and economic ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are growing rapidly. Turkey, one forum participant told me, knows where the money is.
In the Caucasus, the government has reached an agreement with Armenia that, with luck and effort, could end a century of mutual hostility. Relations with Russia are cordial and with Greece stable.
Ignoring anxieties in western capitals, Turkey has engaged with the Palestinian Hamas and with the Iranian-sponsored Hizbollah in Lebanon. Next week, Mr Erdogan is due in Tehran as Turkey assumes the role of broker between Iran and the west. Ask high-ranking Turkish officials as to the wisdom of some of these relationships and they refer to Barack Obama. Had he not proposed to replace a clenched fist with an outstretched hand? Turkey has to deal with the region as it is, one of Mr Erdogan’s advisers told me.
On the other side of the ledger, the Israeli invasion of Gaza has led to a rupture in the long-standing relationship with Israel. Mr Erdogan sees an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as the sine qua non of strategic stability in Turkey’s back yard. But he has concluded that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has no interest in a deal.
Not everyone is happy with the eastwards turn. Those who have long carried the European torch see the Islamist character of Mr Erdogan’s administration as a serious threat to the secular settlement bequeathed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. They worry that the prime minister and his ministers seem more comfortable with regional despots than with the democratic leaders of Europe: that the Muslim may trump the European identity.
The focus and energy devoted to building Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, the critics say, has been at the expense of reforms to strengthen the democratic and secular character of the Turkish state. They point to curbs on free speech and the imposition of Muslim social mores. Mr Erdogan’s government stands accused of imposing a multi-billion-dollar fine on the Dogan group, the country’s leading media business, in a campaign to stifle opposition.
Disquiet is heard also among Turkey’s partners in the Nato alliance. Making peace with old enemies is one thing – Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, played a pivotal role in the deal with Armenia. But cuddling up to regional actors still committed to violence risks taking Turkey beyond a sensible good-neighbors policy.
This may be so. But the west is losing its leverage. US power is being challenged across the Middle East; and Europe seems intent on irrelevance. Mr Erdogan’s Turkey still wants to be part of Europe. And on every challenge – from energy, from terrorism, drugs and migration to trade and investment – Europe has an immutable interest in nurturing a democratic, west-facing Turkey. Its security is the west’s security. But Mr Sarkozy and his like want nothing more than to hold on to the past. Turkey speaks to the world as it is becoming.