Years ago in a community development project in Ramallah, when it was still just a sleepy, recently-occupied West Bank town, one of my fellow volunteers, a devilish Turk named Ali, gave me language lessons. In Turkish body language, said Ali, you have the nodding of the head up and down for “yes,” the shaking side to side for “no,” and then something else. Tilting your head back to where your chin pointed to the onlooker (I’ve seen this elsewhere accompanied by a dismissive “tsk” sound) means “impossible.”
So which one is it to be for Turkey’s European Union hopes: yes, no, or - as in "you silly Turks, whatever made you think we’re genuine about those accession talks" - impossible?
Map of Turkey and its neighborhood, from the European Commission Enlargement website, “Turkey - Candidate Country Profile.” As in Perpetual Candidate?
To the annoyance of Nicolas Sarkozy (and I dare say a few others), US President Barack Obama, speaking at the Turkish Parliament yesterday, repeated that
The United States strongly supports Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union. (Applause.) We speak not as members of the EU, but as close friends of both Turkey and Europe. Turkey has been a resolute ally and a responsible partner in transatlantic and European institutions. Turkey is bound to Europe by more than the bridges over the Bosphorous. Centuries of shared history, culture, and commerce bring you together. Europe gains by the diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith — it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe’s foundation once more.
Obama and Sarkozy can agree on one thing: the US is not a member of the EU. The preceding is therefore called, in good American parlance, jawboning - “to influence by persuasion” (usually in domains where direct power is limited or, as in this case, nonexistent). But Turkey-in-Europe is both a geographic and demographic fact, and goes back centuries to the time when the Ottoman Empire - and latterly, the Young Turks - ruled large European territories.
This American stance on Turkey’s EU credentials is not new, but when Obama speaks of Europe “gaining in diversity,” he brings a certain credibility to the argument that Bush and others never had. As far as the US image is concerned, Obama had to surface from not only the generally abyssal depths into which Bush had sunk US-Muslim relations, but also had to repair damaged US-Turkish relations.
Who, other than Turkish democrats and US Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, remember then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz calling for the Turkish Army to exert its “traditional leadership role” (code for carrying out a coup d’état) in the face of the elected Turkish government’s opposition to allowing US military use of Turkish territory to invade Iraq in 2003? Frank called for Wolfowitz to resign. He eventually did, but for other reasons, and from a different job…
So Obama’s reference to “Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy” helps make amends for Bush and Wolfowitz dissing elected Turkish democrats, just because they were of the (moderate) Islamist persuasion and saw - like Obama did as a Senatorial hopeful back in 2003 - that invading Iraq was a sure-fire way to stir up a regional hornet’s nest.
That region - Turkey borders on 7 countries and is across the sea from another five - is why Turkey is important to NATO and potentially to the EU. We’ve long known Turkey for its troop-contributing potential as NATO’s second largest army, but, as Dr. Bahadir Kaleagasi, TUSIAD (Turkey’s Industrial Association) representative in Brussels said recently, “Turkey is either - or both - the northernmost country of the South or the southernmost country of the North.” Kaleagasi didn’t need to refer to Turkey’s ongoing mediation efforts between Israel and Syria (nor its attempts to get Hamas legitimated), but he did talk about Turkey’s position vis a vis Iran: “the Turkish-Iranian border is unchanged since medieval times, one of the world’s most ancient.” Interesting prospect, as the West enlists Turkey’s help in its efforts in the multiple regional challenges - Palestine/Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, and “Af/Pak.”
On the matter of Turkish membership in the European Union, I straddle a diplomatic “Errant European” and “Avuncular American” line. Expressing myself as an American, Europeans don’t want to hear another call from a Yank who should mind his business about the strategic interest and basic fairness of dealing honestly with a Candidate Country. As a dual American/Irish-European, I have nothing against Turkey’s Islamic identity, and agree with Obama when he sees the positives for diversity.
But I do honestly question whether the EU should expand indefinitely. And that doesn’t mean just the matter of Turkish accession. Can the EU limit enlargement to the countries on this map (essentially Turkey plus Croatia, Macedonia, and “potential candidate countries” in the rest of the Balkan peninsula)? Or will the process carry on as long as this applies: “Any country that satisfies the conditions for enlargement can submit an application.” The OSCE, by the way, has 56 member states, and the Council of Europe 47. So there's a long way to go until "Europe" reaches its outer limits.
This post first appeared in "Errant European" (Euractiv/Blogactiv)