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Turks at Europe’s Gates

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
October 5, 2007

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There were no hidden messages in Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s first major trip abroad since taking office in late August 2007. Gul traveled not to Iraq, where tensions with Turkey are running high; not to Germany, a major center of the Turkish diaspora; not to the United States, Turkey’s primary security partner. Instead, he traveled to Council of Europe meetings in Strasbourg, France (Turkish Daily News). “We specifically chose Strasbourg,” Gul explained. “The Council of Europe is an institution that Turkey has been in since 1948. It is a school for Europe. Democracy, human rights, and supremacy of the law are pillars here.” Gul’s point was clear: he hopes to reaffirm Turkey’s fervent desire for European Union (EU) accession and reiterate the country’s efforts to reform on issues like democracy and human rights, where it meets rebuke from EU ministers (CNN).

If Gul’s election as president stirred unease among Turkey’s secular political factions, and particularly the country’s military leadership, it also raised hopes over EU accession. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement (PDF) that Gul’s rise presents an “opportunity to give fresh, immediate and positive impetus to the accession process to the European Union.” Gul brings a personal connection to negotiations. He previously served as Turkey’s representative to the Council of Europe and has been named an honorary member of the group. Moreover, Gul appointed a staunchly pro-EU cabinet and has taken the first months of his presidency as a chance to push for reforms long encouraged by EU ministers, including changing a law (AP) that criminalizes insults against Turkish identity.

Yet many analysts suspect another false dawn in the bleak history of Turkey’s negotiations over EU membership. Turkey and the European Union still disagree sharply over Cyprus, and Ankara recently refused to open up the island’s trade privileges unless EU trade ministers (AFP) back away from their efforts to economically isolate separatist Turkish Cypriots. The chances of compromise seem slim, particularly given a late 2006 European Commission report (PDF) slamming Turkish Cypriots for human rights abuses.

The stiffest opposition to Turkish accession these days comes from France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy says he wishes to offer Turkey “not a union, but a partnership” (Hurriyet). As a presidential candidate, Sarkozy said accepting Turkey would mark “the end of political Europe”(AFP) and worsen European concerns over an influx of Turkish immigrants. France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, speaking recently at CFR, said he personally disagreed with Sarkozy’s position: “I believe that we have to accept Turkey, but I’m not the master of the game,” he said.

However it shakes out, the Turkey-EU debate promises heavy consequences. As CFR’s Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall argues in a recent article, Europe can ill afford to lose a critical supporter of democracy in the Middle East—but may, as reactionary European comments increasingly flare political tensions within Turkey. Sherwood-Randall says Europe’s failure to properly respond to Turkey’s ambitions could bring an “irreparable breach with the Muslim world at a time when many European states face significant internal problems with integrating their own Muslim populations.”

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