WASHINGTON — The European Union's plans to begin membership negotiation talks with Turkey this week have once again been thrown into disarray - for European governments have had difficulty coming to an agreement over the very terms of the negotiation. This does not bode well for those ignoring the very real possibility of Europe rejecting Turkey's EU membership.
After years of indecision and delay, the most optimistic assessment sees Turkey joining the club in roughly 10 years - but Ankara's real chances are diminishing by the day as the political landscape in Europe continues to change rapidly.
Consider the cases of France and Germany. After the rejection of the EU constitution earlier this year, Paris has become increasingly critical of Turkey. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is now publicly talking about stalling membership negotiations. Prospects for Turkey could deteriorate further if Nikolas Sarkozy, the rising star of French politics, wins the presidential election in 2007. Mr. Sarkozy has stated bluntly, "Turkey has no place in Europe."
Similarly, if Angela Merkel ends up heading a coalition government in Germany, this could turn Berlin from a key supporter of Turkish accession into one of its staunchest opponents. Instead of admitting Turkey to full membership, Mrs. Merkel's party has consistently favored a "privileged partnership" with Turkey - a concept that has signified little, other than a desperate desire for Ankara to stay outside the union.
The dismissive attitude of these leaders is a manifestation of the European public's skepticism toward Turkey. A recent EU poll has shown that only 35 percent of European citizens are sympathetic to the idea of Ankara joining the bloc. If a referendum were held today more than 60 percent of the French and 80 percent of the Austrians would vote against Turkish accession.
"Turkey fatigue" has become so obvious that even the Euro-elites in Brussels have been unable to ignore it any longer. Yet the European Commission, itself hopelessly divided over Turkey's European vocation, is not providing leadership on the issue. What is offered instead is a draft negotiation document that is both for and against accession.
The EU can't have it both ways. Membership negotiations will suffer from Turkey managing comprehensive and lengthy political and economic reforms without the promise of reward - admission to the club. Given the uncertainty of public referenda, however, it is exactly this reward that the EU is unable to guarantee. This puts the valuable reforms Ankara has achieved so far into jeopardy - including greater economic liberalization, increased political control over the military, and strengthened independence of the judiciary.
It is imperative that the West develop genuine policy alternatives to Europe's current all-or-nothing approach, on the chance that Turkey is denied accession. The EU must develop a privileged partnership in the meaningful sense of the phrase - an attractive hands-on agenda for upgrading relations in areas of mutual interest, with immediate rewards for Ankara. One fact rises above this diplomatic uncertainty: Given its geo-strategic location and its democratic identity in the Muslim world, Turkey cannot be neglected.
If the EU is to maintain Turkey's orientation toward the West, economic, political, and security relations should be strengthened.
• Since the 1963 association agreement with Brussels, trade and economics have lain at the heart of EU-Turkey affairs. The European Union is Turkey's prime export market and further economic liberalization would help to modernize the Turkish economy and increase growth. As a first step, cooperation with the European Economic Area should be expanded under the Turkish association agreement, as Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the German Bundestag, has suggested. Further trade liberalization also requires the EU to open up its market for agricultural products and the services sector.
• Greater cooperation in political affairs is also a necessity. Once Turkey and the EU get serious about trade and economics, political cooperation should flow more naturally. In matters of mutual concern, Turkey should be involved in EU council meetings, as it can make constructive and valuable contributions - for example with regard to the Black Sea region.
• The final step for Turkish involvement in EU affairs would be enhanced cooperation in the fields of security and military affairs. As a strong NATO member, Turkey has powerful, modernized armed forces to offer, some of which could be used in cooperation with EU forces where the alliance is not involved - for instance in the Balkans - a region of critical importance to both Brussels and Ankara.
The United States, as a traditional friend of Ankara, must cut through the double-talk of both critics and the few cheerleaders for Turkish accession by privately reminding all involved of what is at stake. The worst-case scenario would be a decade of painful negotiations, followed by the rejection of Turkish membership in one of several European referenda.
Reading poll numbers makes it clear that rejection is likely. The EU and the US cannot, like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, wait for something to turn up. Instead, the US must work with its European friends to develop the privileged partnership into a viable alternative, in case, as looks all too likely, the membership journey falls flat. Turkey is simply too important.
• John C. Hulsman is a senior research fellow for European Affairs. Alexander Skiba is special assistant to Dr. Hulsman at the Allison Center for International Relations at the Heritage Foundation.