Europe turning cold on Turkey

All references to Turkey's EU accession have been removed from a declaration for this week's summit.

For Turks, the latest developments in Europe have been understandably dispiriting.

At a European Union summit to be held later this week, all references to Turkey and other candidates for EU expansion have been dropped from the summit declaration. This comes on the heels of the rejection of a new EU constitution in recent referendums in the Netherlands and France, due at least partially to opposition to predominantly Muslim Turkey's joining the EU.

Meanwhile, upcoming elections in Germany could bring into power the conservative Christian Democrats, who oppose Turkish membership in the bloc; and the presumed front-runner for the 2007 presidential elections in France, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, also opposes Ankara's EU bid. Even the new pope, Benedict XVI, has previously stated that he believes that Turkey integrating with Europe would be a "mistake."

Viewed from Turkey, the road toward the country's long-hoped-for EU membership suddenly seems a whole lot longer.

"People have become quite worried about the tensions of the upcoming German elections and the [results of the] French and Dutch referendums," says Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the Turkish office of the German Marshall Fund. "They understand that the parameters of the game are changing."

What observers in Turkey and Europe are now asking is whether the EU's political disarray and the more pronounced opposition to Turkish membership in Europe will cause Ankara to reorient itself away from the EU and to ease up on the reforms it had put in place as part of its membership drive.

"Political confusion in Europe ... could initiate a lot of soul searching in Turkey," says Mr. Kiniklioglu. It could lead to calls for everything from creating stronger alliances with [central Asia's Turkic republics] to opening up to the Middle East to getting closer to Russia, he says.

The clearest reaction to the EU's internal turmoil so far has been a turn to Turkey's old ally, the United States. Realizing that his country can't put all its eggs in the EU basket, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Washington last week on a fence-mending trip aimed at restoring ties with the US. Despite the two countries' decades-long strategic partnership, Turkish-US relations had hit a rocky patch for the past two years, particularly following Ankara's refusal to allow American troops through its territory at the start of the invasion of Iraq.

"Having the US as a strong ally increases Turkey's power in the bargaining process, because otherwise the EU will be able to push Turkey for 100 percent compliance in the negotiations," says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If the EU sees that it's the only game in town for Turkey, it will see that it will be able to push for maximum demands. Come October [when accession negotiations with the EU are set to start], Turkey wants to be able to show Brussels that there's another game in Ankara."

For now, both Turkish and European officials are saying that membership negotiations will begin as planned. Speaking to parliament after the French and Dutch referendums, Mr. Erdogan said: "This result has nothing to do with Turkey's candidacy, we will continue on our path with the same enthusiasm."

Erdogan Monday also brushed aside the report that references to Turkey were removed from this week's summit text.

But Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, based in Brussels, says the recent events in Europe will undoubtedly have an impact on how the negotiations are managed and what direction they take.

One scenario that could gain ground in Europe is that of a "privileged partnership" being offered to Turkey. This would enlarge Turkey's role in the EU's commercial and foreign-policy activities, but keep Turkish workers out of Europe and give Ankara little say in European domestic affairs. Angela Merkel, leader of the German Christian Democrats, has been a strong advocate of this kind of arrangement. Turkey has said that it would not accept anything other than full membership in return for fulfilling the EU's requirements for joining the bloc.

For now, the best path Turkey can take will be to continue with its political and economic reforms no matter what winds blow out of Europe, Mr. Gros says. "It will actually strengthen their hand because they can show that they had ben doing the reforms even without the guarantee of membership," he says.

Kiniklioglu says, though, that the Turkish government will find it difficult to continue with its reforms if there is a perception that the EU is having second thoughts about letting Turkey join.

"You could probably see a lot of reluctance by officials to implement even formally passed reforms," he says. "If the carrot is taken away and the road to the carrot becomes so uncertain, there will be a lot of pressure on the government to back off on reforms."

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