By Ivelina Fedulova
With the world’s attention being turned towards Libya, its neighbours and the Middle East, it is not surprising that the media paid very little attention to the two EU enlargement meetings with Turkey and Croatia last week. After all, for most people, Croatia’s accession to the Union is a fait accompli, even more so now that it has concluded negotiations on two more chapters. Turkey’s accession, however, is believed to have stalled as there has been no progress in the process in the last year. This reinforces many people’s belief that Turkey will either never become an EU member or that it should not become one all together. Yet, the people of Europe should look past the ideological arguments against Turkey’s membership, which are often based on religion, culture, and history. With Europe’s global role constantly being challenged nowadays, allowing Turkey to join the Union would strengthen its security and defence, its foreign policy regarding Arab countries and would also ensure its energy security. The EU-27 need to recognise that Turkey need not necessarily be a threat to their interests, but could in fact help to augment their collective geopolitical influence going forwards, particularly with regards to energy security and their relationships in the Muslim world.
To begin with, Turkey is vital for establishing Europe’s energy security. Europe is currently dependent on external sources for 90% of its oil needs, 80% of its gas needs, and 50% with regards to coali . Although Europe will never be completely independent when it comes to energy supplies, this dependency is particularly bad as far as natural gas is concerned. Due to its constraint to pipelines, gas in particular can be used as a geopolitical tool and therefore relying predominantly on just one supplier is a risky strategy, as proven by the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute. 42% of Europe’s natural gas is currently supplied by Russia. In 2009, Russia stopped the gas flow to Ukraine due to a price dispute. This effectively reduced the gas supply for a number of EU member states such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, which ensured that these countries pushed for a quicker solution of the conflict, thereby putting pressure on Ukraine. The crisis, albeit rather short, made it obvious that Russia’s government was not afraid to use its gas supplies to achieve its political and economic aims. In addition, the North Stream pipeline, which links Russia directly to Germany, has made Eastern Europe feel particularly uneasy because the remaining pipelines can be used as a strategic tool in another energy conflict, in order to put pressure on them without affecting the energy supply to West Europe.
The likelihood of such a scenario can be reduced with Turkey’s help. Its proximity to many countries rich in natural gas, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and even Egypt, makes Turkey a perfect candidate to become one of Europe’s energy hubs. It is also a key participating country in a number of important pipeline projects such as the EU-backed Nabucco and Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), and South Stream, which is supported by Russia. Nabucco is of great importance for Europe’s energy security as it will allow the largest flow of gas to the European Union that will not be derived from a Russian source. The project is likely to gain even more importance following the events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, as the popularity of natural gas as an energy source is going up. One can, therefore, not stress enough how important it is to ensure that Turkey is committed to helping Europe diversify its suppliers. This would be greatly facilitated if Turkey was an EU member, as all member states need to open their respective markets, thereby guaranteeing Turkey’s role in securing Europe’s supply of gas.
Turkey can also bring substantial advantages to the European Union as a member with regards to defence and security, which will be necessary if the EU is to ever be capable of standing on its own two feet militarily. Clearly, the EU remains and will likely remain dependent upon the United States for a substantial portion of its security, but the US cannot be relied on to defend European interests in every situation, and nor should it be expected to. That Europe can shoulder its share of the security burden is consequently of vital importance, and Turkey could be extremely helpful in this regard. Numerically speaking, Turkey’s military is the second largest in NATO, after that of the United States, and it is one of the top ten largest militaries in the world. That is not to say that NATO and the Common Security and Defence Policy are to compete with one another. However, strengthening Europe’s defence and security capabilities would allow the two to complement each other and for the EU and NATO to be able to split tasks according their specialties, thereby allowing them to allocate the civilian and smaller scale military operations to the EU and bigger military operations to NATO.
Turkey’s geographical location, forward bases, and logistical means would also enhance the EU’s military capabilities in its nearer region, particularly if events such as the Arab spring are to repeat in the future. The Turkish army is very experienced in unconventional guerrilla warfare in difficult terrains due to its clashes with separatist Kurdish insurgents active within Turkey’s sizeable Kurdish minority. Turkey also has a particularly good area expertise and the cultural context factor when it comes to the Middle East and Islamic countries, which would give an extra edge to the Common Security and Defence Policy. This is important because although the EU has not set out to replace NATO, seeing as there is a mutual agreement that there will be no duplication or decoupling, Europe needs to show that it has the military means to act if that was ever needed. Reinforcing the Common Security and Defence Policy by bringing in Turkey’s military capabilities, will give the Union additional weight in many aspects of world politics.
The country’s membership could also lead to closer co-operation between NATO and the EU in another import aspect, namely Turkey-Cyprus relations. Currently, co-operation between the two is blocked by Turkey, on NATO’s side, and Cyprus, on the EU side, due to the Cyprus conflict. For Turkey to become an EU member, the Cyprus question will have to be solved, as currently a number of accession chapters are blocked as a result of it. Solving the conflict as part of the accession process would thereby lead to facilitated work between NATO and the EU. Nonetheless, this would also be the case even if Turkey’s accession was to occur without a solution to the conflict as there would be no reason for the two states to use NATO and the EU as a mean to confront each other, once Turkey is an EU member.
Last, but not least important, is the further political influence that Turkey would give the European Union in international relations. Europe is often observed with suspicion by Turkey’s neighbours, due to its image as a Christian club and its colonial past. On the other hand, in many aspects, Turkey is seen as a role model and diplomatic broker in its area, thereby allowing it to be a regional leader. Its soft power is based on being able to successfully combine Islam and democracy, as well as on its strong economy, which ranks 6th in Europe and 17th globally. The 5% economic growth that it has been experiencing, despite the current economic climate, has encouraged its neighbouring states to ensure close economic relations with Turkey. Similar to the European Union, Turkey can then use these factors to influence the region, one of a vital strategic importance for Europe. Turkey’s membership of the Union would thereby enable the EU to also be able to influence the region. A good example would be the freedom revolutions that have been spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. It is only through co-operation that Turkey and the EU could contribute towards stability and democracy in those countries as Europe has the economic means but lacks the knowledge of combining Islam and democracy, whereas Turkey has the cultural context but not the economic capacity of the EU. In addition, many believe that the Turkish model would be the way forward for post-Mubarak Egypt, where the army, just like in Turkey, is still a key institution and religion and democracy need to be combined.
One could criticise using the Arab revolutions as an example, as the current situation in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the Middle East requires a solution now and Turkey will not be able to join for several years yet. Nonetheless, the broader arguments remain the same. The Arab Spring has shown the world how quickly the international political climate can change and how important it is to be able to draw on as broad a network of strategic partners as possible, who share the same interests and – ideally – values. As a Muslim-majority country that has accepted democracy and the rule of law, albeit problematically at times, Turkey is an extremely important partner in that regard, and one whose friendship the EU should not forfeit lightly.
Does this mean, then, that Europe should just work with Turkey as a partner, and not incorporate it as a full member of the Union? Unfortunately, Turkey already feels discouraged by Europe because of the deadlock surrounding the accession and the lack of interest in many member states to overcome this, and it could well be argued that this is having negative ramifications with regards to certain aspects of Turkish foreign policy and its relationship with Europe. Support for EU membership amongst the Turkish people has fallen from 73% in 2004 to 38% in 2010. Pushing Turkey towards Iran and the Arab South would mean that Europe would forego on all the geo-strategic benefits of Turkey’s membership, which, as already highlighted, are necessary for sustaining Europe’s importance in the future.
Even things such as helping to maintain the Union’s percentage representation of the world’s population, in order to maintain its weight as global player, would be dependent on Turkey joining the Union, due to its population decline. One could argue that the benefits can still be obtained through a special partnership, rather than full membership, but it is unlikely that Turkey would be willing to have made, what it probably considers as, big sacrifices for Europe in return for anything less than being an EU member. Furthermore, some of the countries, which are opposing Turkey’s accession, are the ones who have the most to lose if Turkey was to turn away from Europe. Greece needs Turkey so that it is not the EU’s southeastern buffer anymore and Cyprus would lose all hope for compromise and unification, when Turkey loses interest in being part of the EU and thus the motivation to reach a compromise with Cyprus .
Ending the accession process for any other reason than failing to fulfil the membership criteria, would also further reinforce the belief in the Muslim world that the European Union is an exclusive “Christian club”. This would inadvertently lead to the decline in the EU’s influence in global politics as well as negative feelings towards it from the Muslim world. After all, Turkey has pushed a number of reforms through in order to be able to enter the EU, including amendments to the controversial article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. Closing that door in its face would seriously decrease Europe’s credibility in the Arab world.
Europe’s future clearly needs to include Turkey in it. However, that is not to say that EU membership should be granted unconditionally. Neither Turkey nor the EU should rush into the accession without both sides being prepared. On Turkey’s side, especially, there are still a number of reforms that need to be enforced. Concerns, particularly regarding freedom of speech, need to be addressed, if it is to be an EU member. The country ranks 138th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Press Freedom Index of “Reporters without Boarders” and, more alarmingly, Europe has last month once again seen Turkish journalists being arrested in an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Freedom of speech, equality rights, minority rights are amongst the many values of the European Union and Turkey would need to ensure that they are fully introduced, in order to have the EU membership within reach. One can also not forget the need for a solution to the Cyprus conflict and for gaining support in the member states which will require national referendums on Turkey’s membership. Turkey must also realise that it needs Europe as much as the European Union needs Turkey so it is necessary to put in the effort to be accepted, in the same way that Europe needs to make the effort to accommodate it. However, it is certainly not doing itself any favours with its wayward foreign policy. Its pursuit of close relations with Iran and its clashes with Israel will have to be reconsidered, as the fact that they are out of line with the EU’s foreign policy brings back doubts that Turkey might not fit in the Union.
With the upcoming elections in France, Turkey and Cyprus to take place this year, the political situation across Europe could swing either to Turkey’s advantage or disadvantage. Yet, recognising the geo-strategic advantages of Turkey becoming an EU member would facilitate the accession process and would encourage member states to work towards solving the obstacles on the way to achieving this. After all, geopolitics is in the very origin of the European Union.