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Bateel Skycraper


A Turkish Love Affair

A Turkish Love Affair

Issue 57 June 2009

There is an old song playing on the radio and somehow it seems to make sense. Sertab Erener’s “Every Way That I Can”, a blend of traditional Turkish music with racy English lyrics was Turkey’s winning entry in the pan-European Eurovision song contest six years ago. “I feel you moving on a different course,” sang Erener, “You say you love me and you roll your eyes.” Through her lyrics, spun from the yearnings of a frustrated lover, Turkey caught the mood of Europe in 2003. Today, her words could more accurately capture Turkey’s mood towards Europe.

Turkey’s love affair with Europe, which seemed to blaze so strongly just a few years ago, has soured and both Europe and Turkey are looking around, shuffling their feet on commitments and forging tentative alliances elsewhere. Neither has yet broken the relationship, but clearly some love has been lost. What happened?

Like most relationships, time and temperament. The Turks perceive a different mood in Europe, which once seemed keen to open the European Union as widely as possible. The accession of ten new countries in 2004, and a further two in 2007, appeared to herald a new dawn of expansion. Indeed that same year, Turkey secured a date to open formal negotiations for membership of the union.

But the road soon turned rocky. The European Union has dragged its feet, uncertain about admitting a majority Muslim country of 70m with most of its landmass in Asia, and perhaps wanting to wait until the consequences of its recent expansion become clearer. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy and – to a lesser extent – the German chancellor Angela Merkel have made it clear they are against Turkish entry. Against this backdrop, the heady love affair has soured. Turkey, led by the still popular and mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party, has shown little enthusiasm to continue making the reforms necessary to fulfil the EU’s terms of entry. Even Turkish public opinion has drifted away from Europe.

But the relationship between Turkey and the European Union matters, for both. The European perspective – and approval in the form of EU membership - is crucial to ensure the liberalising reforms made so far in Ankara become entrenched. Turkey matters too to Europe: indeed, on a range of questions, from Europe’s relationship with the wider Islamic world, to what the composition of the European club will look like, Turkey’s membership is an answer to a question too few Europeans are asking.

The way back, as with all relationships, requires a leap of faith. For Turkey, this will mean following through on reforms without a guaranteed date to join the EU. Critics of the process – especially in Ankara – see this as wrong-headed, asking why Turkey needs to jump through legislative hoops before Brussels names the date. They are suspicious of expending political capital on the EU project at a time when some of the most prominent European leaders have taken a belligerent stance towards Turkey.

But reformers within Turkey should take heart from the experience of the most recent EU members: Romania and Bulgaria have experienced some ‘backsliding’ on reforms, because their accession date was guaranteed in advance. By forcing Turkish reforms before a date for entry is set, reformers can entrench behaviour and ensure their reforms continue past accession.

For the European Union, a leap of faith is also required, but such leaps have been taken before. Admitting Spain, Portugal and Greece in 1986, with their then-recent returns to democracy, was a test of the union, as was the reunification three years later of Germany. But the biggest leap of faith came recently, in the expansion from 15 to 27 countries. That expansion went beyond population and geography to the culture of the Union, bringing in nations who had been part of the Soviet sphere of influence for decades, nations whose defining experience of liberation came not in 1945 but in the 1990s.

 A change for sure, but a change in significant part for the better. A rapprochement between Turkey and the rest of the continent will bring benefits to this immense club of nations – and have repercussions far beyond these shores. But both now need to take that leap of faith, to recommit to each other – and soon. A relationship can only be stretched so far before it cracks and time is running out. As if in answer, Turkey’s entry to this month’s Eurovision in Moscow has no name: it is instead merely the marching of a drumbeat.

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