The US Government looked on in shock this week when Turkey defied its traditional allies including the United States and Israel, and voted against UN sanctions for Iran. Ankara had already tried to stall a fourth round of sanctions by negotiating a flawed nuclear deal with the atomic ayatollahs. U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates has said that Turkey’s strategic drift away from the West is due, in part, to the European Union’s reluctance to accept them into the alliance.
Turkey has been a key NATO ally since the ‘50s, and the U.S. largely assumed that Ankara’s path to EU membership would be as smooth as the other 21 members common to both alliances.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been at the forefront of opposing full Turkish membership of the European Union, proposing instead a privileged partnership between Ankara and Brussels.
Having European leaders talk about privileged partnerships at the same time as accession prospects is profoundly unwise. There is a pervasive sense in Ankara that the EU is negotiating with them in bad faith. The Turkish Government has undertaken significantly difficult reforms to align itself more closely with the EU’s body of law, but the feeling that Brussels may not be serious about its eventual accession has helped push Turkey toward its eastern neighbors. Favorable polling toward the EU currently stands at just 22 percent.
There are more than a handful of EU countries which would likely veto Turkish membership when a final vote is taken. Bringing Turkey to the finish line and then denying them membership would be a disaster for the region. The EU should therefore seek to advance tangible projects with Turkey as opposed to merely a technocratic membership action plan which is unlikely to be honored in the end.
The United States must also realize that it does not have a vote over who does or doesn’t accede to the EU and not burn political capital pushing for something that won’t happen. It must further accept that the EU is in no position to play a regional leadership role. Whether it be relations with Russia or Turkish estrangement from the West, the EU is incapable of thinking strategically or long-term in foreign policy terms.
President Obama should also refrain from associating Turkish membership of the EU with the west’s relationship with the Muslim world more generally. Should Turkey not accede to the EU, it will not be because it is a Muslim country.
There has to be obligations for Turkey as well, regardless of its EU-accession status. As a member of the NATO alliance, and a key U.S. partner, Ankara cannot afford to undermine solid regional allies such as Israel, while cozying up to odious dictators such as Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and genocide-indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
A European Union which could grow to 40 members in the future certainly needs to be more flexible with new membership arrangements for different countries—including existing countries such as Britain which is clearly uncomfortable with its current membership terms. Flexible membership arrangements and privileged partnerships may well be the future for the EU and several other partners moving forward. For the U.S., the valuable lesson here is that no one is yet ready to supplant its leadership on the European Continent.