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Turkey-Europe: The Widening Gap

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
October 24, 2006


The possibility of Turkish EU accession appears increasingly uncertain. In recent weeks, European leaders have voiced unease over Ankara’s membership bid, citing concerns over Turkey’s infringement on freedom of expression and its embargo on Cypriot ships and planes (AP), the latter a manifestation of a long-standing dispute over division of the Aegean Sea with Greece. Some EU members, including France and Germany, have suggested Turkey seek “privileged partnership” rather than full membership. Olli Rehn, commissioner of EU enlargement, opposed this idea, but warned the Turkish accession process that began in October 2005 has been slowed by Ankara’s failure to repeal Article 301, which gives the government free reign to arrest journalists and activists for disparaging Turkey. In an interview with the BBC, EU President Jose Manuel Barroso said it could take twenty years for Turkey to become a member nation.

Recent events have done little to ease growing EU-Turkey tensions and Europe seems hesitant to absorb the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of more than 70 million people. France’s parliament recently angered Ankara when it decided to make criminal the denial of mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. The law was condemned by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (Reuters), who was previously indicted under Article 301 for raising the issue of the genocide and who received the Nobel Prize for Literature the same day the French rule passed. Europe-Turkey relations also took a hit last month when Pope Benedict XVI’s comments about Mohammed sparked widespread Muslim protests and temporarily put the pope’s November visit to Turkey in doubt.

Experts say such obstacles to Turkey’s EU membership could lead to missed opportunities for making inroads in Christian-Muslim relations. Denis MacShane, Britain’s former Europe minister, writes in the Financial Times that the Armenian genocide had little to do with modern Turkey and warns against Europe’s increasingly demeaning attitude toward Ankara. He asks, “How much longer will this secular, democratic, Muslim country look westwards to a European future, instead of turning east?” Sedat Laciner, director of Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organization, criticizes “unsuccessful politicians” in Europe for condemning his country, and argues that EU accession would help “erode the unilateral policies” of the United States and Israel in the Middle East by drawing Europe closer to the region.

The problems in Europe coincide with a breakdown in U.S.-Turkey relations, despite Washington’s support for the country’s EU membership. This Council Special Report from June describes the “fractured alliance” and says that although Washington and Ankara agree that an Iraq splintered into three independent states is not in either country’s interests, Turkey is frustrated by the U.S. handling of the Iraqi war. Tensions also exist over America’s failure to support the Turkish fight against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In an August interview, CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook said the United States is unwilling to go after PKK cells in northern Iraq because “it would be foolhardy from a military perspective…to go after the PKK and destabilize the one region where people really aren't shooting at Americans.” Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute says the United States is too soft on Turkey’s government (WSJ) and U.S. diplomats should stop delivering “PC platitudes” that fail to address the “anti-secular agenda” of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.

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