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Stay Out of Europe's Fight With Ankara

Author: Bruce Stokes
December 7, 2002
National Journal

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The leaders of the European Union meet on December 12-13 in Copenhagen to finalize the EU's next enlargement. At the same time, current EU member states are expected to signal when Turkey might expect some decision about its long-pending membership application.

This long-delayed EU action comes in the wake of controversial remarks by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president of France and now head of Europe's constitutional convention. In early November, Giscard complained to the French newspaper Le Monde that Turkey "is not a European country because it has "a different culture." Turkey's admission to the single market, he warned, "would be the end of the European Union." The United States finds itself in the middle of this "clash-of-civilizations" squabble over what constitutes Europe. Washington, in an effort to strengthen democratic rule in Turkey and to ensure that the country remains a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, has long pushed Brussels to make Ankara an EU member. More immediately, the Pentagon now wants Turkey's military support in the looming war with Iraq.

Yet little good can come from the Bush administration's use of Turkey as a pawn in regional geopolitical chess games. The Turkish public overwhelmingly opposes a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Asking the newly elected Islamic government in Ankara to act against the will of its electorate is a prescription for trouble in the streets. Moreover, Turkey is big and poor. At worst, early EU membership would saddle Western Europe with a prolonged, economically debilitating effort to raise Turkish living standards. And such an effort would further hamper Europe's ability to share U.S. security burdens in other parts of the world. At best, the Bush administration risks further alienating Western Europeans by meddling in their affairs. Among Turks, the White House may raise expectations for an early EU entry that, if frustrated, would only generate new Turkish support for anti-Western radical Islam. Whatever the justice of Turkey's claims to EU membership, this internal European debate is one fight the White House should avoid.

There is no disputing that Turkey has met many of the European Union's requirements for membership. In August, the outgoing Turkish government abolished the death penalty, placed new restrictions on the police, and legalized radio and TV broadcasts in Kurdish. More broadly, polls show that most Turks share fundamental Western values, including a commitment to free speech, free elections, and religious freedom.

Yet in championing Turkish membership in the European Union, the Bush administration should be careful about drawing the wrong conclusions from recent Turkish actions and sentiments. As a practical matter, Turks are the first to admit that they still lack real freedoms of speech, the press, and religion, as well as free and fair elections and an impartial judicial system. Moreover, half the Turkish public says they dislike American ideas about democracy, according to the Global Attitudes Survey, a new poll of 38,000 people in 44 nations conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. So it is dangerous to presume that the democracy Turks say they want is one Americans would easily recognize.

More disturbingly, the level of anti-Americanism in Turkey runs deep. Eight out of 10 Turks surveyed by Pew called the spread of American ideas and customs in their country a bad thing. And more than half of all Turks had an unfavorable view of the United States.

Nor do the Turks support the impending war in Iraq or the ongoing U.S. war on terrorism. In the Global Attitudes poll, 80 percent opposed the use of Turkish bases by the United States and its allies for an Iraq invasion, despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO. The Turks were less likely than Western Europeans to see Iraq as a threat to Middle Eastern stability and were much less likely to want to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Furthermore, half of all Turks believed that Washington wanted to get rid of Saddam as part of a war on Muslims, not because he poses a threat to peace. And only 30 percent of Turks supported the U.S. war on terrorism, less than half the public support found among America's European allies.

Finally, the Bush administration might reflect on why Turks show so little appreciation for Washington's past efforts on their behalf. Three out of four surveyed said that the United States does not take Turkey's interests into account when making international policy decisions.

U.S. support for Turkey's membership in the EU is based more on wishful thinking than on realpolitik. Turkey is certainly not the alien culture painted by Giscard. Its people look to the West for many of their core values. But Turkey is also not ready to be a part of Europe. For all its reforms, Turkey still does not function as a model Western European democracy. More important, from an American point of view, Ankara is even less likely than Paris or Berlin to support Washington's international goals.

The Bush administration has enough differences with Europe over Iraq, trade, the international criminal court, and global warming. Why burden this already troubled alliance with one more source of friction.