European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels this week to mark the end of Sweden's presidency. One item high on their agenda will be to review relations with Turkey.
The EU formally accepted Turkey as a candidate for membership at the end of 2004. Soon after that, however, leaders in France and Germany began declaring that Turkey should never be accepted as a member. The EU is now unable to say whether Turkey will become a member even if it fulfills the Copenhagen criteria. As the latest progress report prepared by the EU makes clear, Turkey's accession process has been slow under these circumstances. There has been little movement on the leading issues, such as Cyprus. Many chapters of the accession negotiations remain unopened, or blocked by a few EU member states.
The reversal of the EU's commitment has not played well in Turkey's domestic politics. After the breakthroughs of the earlier years, the AKP government has made limited progress in political reforms during the last five years. Complicating things further, domestic opposition to Turkey's membership has grown even among the secular middle classes.
More recently, the government has been sending mixed signals about the reforms. On one hand, it is searching for a political solution to the decades-long war against Kurdish guerrillas in the country's southeast. It has made unprecedented attempts to open up the country's political system not only to Kurds but also to Muslim Alavis and non-Muslim minorities. At the same time, however, it has imposed a crushing tax penalty on the leading opposition media group. There is no doubt Turkey has to do a good deal of homework to improve its political system and institutions, including freedom of speech and freedom of press. With European support for membership, the government and the main opposition are likely to move firmly behind the accession process, and those reforms would undoubtedly be a lot easier.
Turkey's foreign policy has also been lacking in clarity of late. With the full backing of the US and Russia as well as the EU, it signed an agreement with Armenia aiming to deal with the contentious issues going back to the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians. Turkey has also improved relations with its other neighbours – Syria, Russia and most important, Iran. In contrast, its relations with Israel deteriorated markedly over the course of the last year. The latter developments have led many to ask whether Turkey is moving away from the west. Again, there is no doubt that a Turkey more firmly anchored in Europe would move closer to the EU, and many of these foreign policy moves would actually help the EU and the west.
In many parts of Europe, Turkey's integration into the EU is seen as a long and costly process, at best. Instead, Turkey's membership should be seen as a major opportunity for Europe. The economic benefits of membership are clear. Turkey already has a reasonably well-functioning market economy which has managed to avoid the worst of the recent crisis. Its customs union arrangement with the EU has worked well on both sides for 15 years now and in recent years, Turkey has begun attracting large amounts of European direct investment. The fiscal costs to the EU of Turkey's membership have been greatly exaggerated. In addition, the Turks are getting old, and their incomes are rising. By the time they are finally allowed, in two or three decades, to move freely inside Europe, very few will be young enough to want to go anywhere.
Moreover, Turkey's membership would significantly enhance the EU's presence and capacities beyond its borders. Turkey can contribute in many ways to EU foreign policy in the Caucauses, Central Asia and the Middle East. It will help diversify the EU's energy sources and security. A European identity firmly rooted not in one religion but in shared political values will make the EU a much more effective and credible player not only towards the Muslim world but around the globe as well. For these benefits to become more apparent, however, Europe perhaps needs to look outward and act more like a global player.
Turkey does not have any serious alternative to the EU and the west. Yet the current uncertainty is beginning to have a negative impact on the relationship. Surely, Turkey needs to undertake the political reforms and fulfill the criteria for membership just like all the previous candidates.
But it also needs and deserves the same support and the level playing field given to previous candidates. It is worth remembering that European support played a key role in the accession not only of central and eastern Europe but also the successful transition of southern European countries to democracy. To withdraw that support from Turkey now would hurt not only its political transformation but also European credibility around the world.
Şevket Pamuk is Professor of Contemporary Turkish Studies at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science
This article appeared in Comment is Free, Guardian.co.uk