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Bush Can Strengthen Turkey's Role in Europe

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
January 27, 2004
Financial Times


When George W. Bush and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, meet tomorrow at the White House, they must do more than patch up a relationship badly frayed by the Iraq war and its aftermath. Washington wants to strengthen Turkey as a model for democratisation in the Muslim world and a firewall against terrorism. The best way to achieve this is through Turkey's membership of the European Union.

Getting in the EU membership queue has become a national obsession in Turkey. Romano Prodi, European Commission president, was warmly welcomed last week by the Turkish parliament when he noted the country's "impressive progress" and spoke of Turkey's taking its "rightful place among the peoples of Europe".

Despite his encouragement, EU membership is far from assured. Western European opinion polls show a strong reluctance to see Turkey join the Christian club. The country's detractors may use the unsettled situation in Cyprus as an excuse to defer Turkey's candidacy. Overcoming the division of the island, though not a formal condition for starting accession talks, would have many advantages. Progress would galvanise the forces for reform in Turkey, enabling Mr Erdogan to tackle the country's other problems.

To this end, Mr Bush should emphasise that it is in Turkey's interest to distance itself from Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, who stubbornly opposes reunification. Not only is he blocking the popular will of Turkish Cypriots who want the entire island to join the EU on May 1; he is also obstructing Turkey's own prospects.

Mr Erdogan should be rewarded if he facilitates a referendum on the UN plan to reunify Cyprus. The US should use its influence to secure concessions to the Annan proposal, including the phased withdrawal of Turkish troops and an orderly process for managing the resettlement of Greek Cypriots in the north. Mr Erdogan has his eye on local elections in March. His Justice and Development party will do well if Turkey's economy continues to improve. The inflation rate, which was spiralling out of control when Mr Erdogan assumed office 10 months ago, is down to 13 per cent. He would welcome America's endorsement of additional support by the International Monetary Fund, including a decision to spread out repayments more evenly. Turkey is due to pay back Dollars 9.5bn (Pounds 5.2bn) in IMF and eurobond loans this year, Dollars 11.5bn in 2005 and Dollars 14.2bn in 2006.

Turkey's security establishment worries that the Iraq war will ultimately result in independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. To satisfy these concerns, the US should reiterate its support for Iraq's territorial integrity. The Coalition Provisional Authority has recently decided to maintain the status quo while deferring the decision on Kurdish autonomy until after Iraqis begin constitutional deliberations in 2005. Discussions about Kirkuk as the capital of a federal Kurdish entity should be similarly postponed.

Turkey has legitimate security concerns about the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), which has encamped in the remote mountains along the Turkish-Iraqi border. The US should pledge to increase pressure on the PKK to disarm and demobilise. Washington should also expand intelligence sharing and other forms of anti-terrorism co-operation to prevent a recurrence of the terrorist bombings in Istanbul last November.

Mr Bush should make clear what is expected of Turkey. The country can play a vital role in Iraq by assisting reconstruction and abiding by the principle of non-interference. It can be a force for stability in the Caucasus. Opening the Turkish-Armenian border would stimulate regional trade, enhance regional security co-operation and help revitalise moribund peace talks on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. In addition, Turkey can enhance its EU prospects by reducing the military's role in politics and implementing promised human rights reforms, such as allowing Kurdish-language broadcasts and education.

A setback to the realisation of Turkey's place in Europe would radicalise the country's overwhelmingly Muslim population and greatly reduce its effectiveness as a bridge between civilisations. Mr Bush can provide valuable assistance in fortifying Mr Erdogan and encouraging Turkey to take the right course.

The writer is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Centre for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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