After Israel's Gaza flotilla raid, is Turkey rejecting Europe?

Israel's Gaza flotilla raid prompted a response in Turkey that rattled some Europeans. Turkey has been rebuffed in its efforts to join the European Union for years, and is now forging a more independent international course.

By , / Staff writer

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    Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (c.) pressed for EU membership while visiting France’s Nicolas Sarkozy (r.) in April. Mr. Sarkozy is opposed, saying Turkey is not part of Europe. After Israel's flotilla raid earlier this month, Turkey may be reconsidering its relationship with Europe.
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Europe has watched with some dismay Turkey's strident reaction to the fatal Israeli flotilla raid – part of what many see as a larger Turkish "repositioning" of itself on the world stage.

While Europe also condemned the flo­tilla attack, in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens seeking to break the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, there's wariness here over Tur­key's emerging persona under an Islamic-rooted party and murmurs about whether it wants to reassert an old Ot­to­man Empire sphere of influence.

In the past few years, Ankara has mended ties with its neighbors, including Iran. On June 9, Turkey was one of only two countries (Brazil was the other) on the United Nations Security Council to vote against fresh Iran nuclear sanctions.

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Yet part of Turkey's shift is due to the European Union's steady rebuff of the mainly Muslim state. Turkey first applied to join the EU in 1987 and waited 18 years for the process to start, which could drag past 2020. "A majority of Turks say they want to join Europe, but ... also feel it will never happen," says a senior US diplomat.

Membership has been essentially nixed by Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy, who says Turkey is not part of Europe. "Sarkozy has few deeply rooted beliefs, but this is one of them," says François Heisbourg of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "He would only cave under unanimous European pressure, which won't happen."

Organic link

After the flotilla fallout, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized Europe for "refusing to give Turkey the ... organic link to the West that Turkey sought."

Advocates of Turkish-EU integration – and there are many here – say it would help mitigate religious extremism, strengthen Turkish civil reform, and give greater strategic depth to Europe. "By showing Turkey our defiance, we reject it into a universe where it could ... become dangerous," argued former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard in the Paris journal ENA recently. "We need on our southeastern flank the hope for a social democracy mixed with rapid growth ... but for that we need Turkey to be admitted to the Union."

Yet Europeans have become more fearful of welcoming Turkey. After the flotilla raid, shouts of "Death to Israel" on Turkish streets looked un-European. The Continent, unsettled by Muslim immigration, is in a populist mood – as seen by politician Geert Wilders's anti-Islam party nearly tripling its seats in recent Dutch elections.

"The primary responsibility for pushing Turkey away lies in attacks on the process by populist politicians in France, Germany, Austria, and the Greek Cypriot government," says Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group in Istanbul. "They use it for domestic political purposes to play on people's fears, and this has done a great deal to make Turks angry towards Europe."

Since 1994, the EU has enlarged from nine to 27 members, bringing in former Warsaw Pact nations. Yet like a bouncer at an exclusive club, the EU stiff-armed Turkey – a NATO member that modernized and democratized in hopes of joining the European party.

Noses out of joint

"The last [Ottoman] sultans sought German and French counseling on the renovation of armed forces and laws," says Mr. Rocard. "Turkey has gone through the process of modernization in an obvious reference to Europe, and we are presently slamming the door on their nose because they don't sufficiently look like us."

After French and German rebuffs in 2006, Turkey calculated it would not be admitted to the EU and pursued a more independent path. Under skillful new Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has smoothed relations with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, and even Armenia.

"What Turkey has achieved in the past six months is spectacular – on a par with Deng Xiaoping's decision to make China a status quo power .. and to mend ties with Vietnam, India, and South Korea," says Mr. Heisbourg, who disagrees that Turkey harbors Ottoman-style ambitions.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently blasted critics who say Turkey has turned its back on Europe as "intermediaries of an ill-intentioned propaganda."

More than 50 percent of Turkish exports go to European states, and 90 percent of investment in Turkey is European.

"Turkey has no interest in turning its back to Europe," said former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in a Monitor interview. "Would we lose Turkey if the [membership] negotiations failed? I don't think so.... I can't see Turkey forging an alliance with China against Europe just for spite. Turkey's strategic interest is to maintain relations with everyone: the US, Europe,... Central Asia, the Arab world."

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