Turkey: Europe Our Friend, America Our Partner

By
Asla Aydintasbas

December 20, 2002 -- Disappointed, Turkish leaders left the December 12-13 European Union summit in Copenhagen without a firm date for accession talks, but they promised to forge ahead with the country's European orientation.
Turkey's new government, led by former Islamists, has indicated its willingness to meet Europe's membership criteria by delivering further political reforms and a solution to the Cyprus issue. It is expected to continue to push for progress on both fronts until the EU's December 2004 review of Turkey's eligibility for accession talks. The country may, in fact, begin talks soon afterwards.

But, on a larger scale, the Copenhagen episode has further soured the already fragile Turkish-European ties and has led to a renewed feeling of solidarity between the new government in Turkey and the United States, which lobbied the EU intensely for a firm date for accession talks on Turkey's behalf. With the impending war against Iraq and the new possibilities for regional partnership between the two countries, Turkey's leaders and its public are likely to remain closer at heart to Washington than to Brussels over the next few years. For Turkey to one day take a seat around the table in Europe, both Europeans and Turks have to focus not only on the Copenhagen criteria, but they also have to work toward mending their bruised relationship on various fronts.

After winning a landslide victory in the November parliamentary elections, Turkey's new government, led by the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), surprised many of its critics by waging an effective lobbying campaign for Turkey's membership in the European Union. Facing a skeptical establishment at home and in Europe, the party's Islamist-oriented leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, toured European capitals in a month-long bid to advance Turkey's chances of getting a firm date in Copenhagen.
Despite the strong backing of Italy, Britain, and Greece, and a critical last-minute effort by Washington, Ankara failed to get the firm date it had hoped for from Brussels. In the end, Europeans honored the German-French recommendation for a conditional date – with negotiations to possibly begin in 2005 – and publicly criticized U.S. efforts to help Turkey as interference in European affairs. Ankara's reaction was subdued, but bitter.

While it is questionable that Washington's lobbying on Turkey's behalf backfired in the way some European leaders have suggested, the Copenhagen episode has engulfed Turkey in the simmering "trans-Atlantic tension" between Europe and Washington, in fact turning Ankara into yet another component of that troubled relationship. This is not entirely new. Turkey has received U.S. backing at various points in its European venture, and Ankara's policies on issues such as European defense capabilities, strategic missile defense, and the International Criminal Court are generally closer to those of Washington than those of Brussels. But the low-intensity Turkish-European tensions now present a stark contrast to the blossoming relations between Turkey's new government and Washington.

To start with, Ankara has often felt snubbed by Europe in its membership bid. Europe's decision to again delay Turkey's entry into the EU is partly seen by many Turks to be the result of longstanding prejudices and ethnic discrimination. This belief was recently reinforced by Washington's silent warnings that the EU's failure to integrate Muslim Turkey would lead to a clash of civilizations at the heart of Europe.

In fact, over the last few years, the Turkish public has grown so convinced of the existence of a European bias concerning Turkey that, on the day the Copenhagen summit began, the mass circulation daily Hurriyet ran a huge picture of Jesus Christ and his disciples on its front page, and questioned Europe's ability to accept a non-Christian member with the headline "Will it be the Last Supper?"

Another dimension that will complicate Turkish-European ties over the next few years is the feeling among many Turks that Europe has abandoned their country in its fight against terrorism. In addition, they ultimately suspect European powers of secretly wanting to undermine Turkey's political positions with respect to Kurdish separatism and Cyprus.

A recent poll by the Bosporus University European Studies Center is telling with regard to the difficulties ahead for the Turkish-European relationship and the possibility of closer ties with the United States. When asked "Which country is Turkey's friend?", only 7 percent said the European Union, 27 percent said the United States, 9 percent said other Muslim countries, and 34 percent said Turkey has no friends.
In contrast to the difficult psychological aspect of the Turkish-European relationship, the impending Turkish-American partnership in a potential war with Iraq is expected to further boost Turkey's relationship with Washington over the next few years. Since the September 11 attacks, this relationship has already taken on a new dimension, with Washington's renewed appreciation of Turkey as a global model for a democratic, secular Muslim country that is also friendly to the West and Western ideals. The electoral victory of the Islamist-oriented AKP has not reduced, but further fueled, this vision.
The recent visit to Ankara by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and President George Bush's decision to receive Erdogan at the White House a few days before the Copenhagen summit, almost as a head of state, established a strong bond between the Bush administration and Turkey's new government. During the meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, the devoutly Christian Bush reportedly told his devoutly Muslim Turkish visitor: "You are a man of faith, and I am a man of faith. You have no shame about saying that, and I have no shame about saying that."

As a prelude to requesting a firm Turkish commitment to a U.S.-led war effort against Iraq, Bush stressed how this common vision would require both leaders to subscribe to a moral outlook in foreign policy and work together to spread "freedoms and democracy" around the world and in the Middle East.

As a first step, the Bush administration is seeking the right to use Turkish air bases and ports, a contingency of Turkish forces for peacekeeping at the Turkish-Iraqi border, and, more difficult for Ankara, permission to position tens of thousands of U.S. troops in southeastern Turkey to open a northern front to unseat the regime of Saddam Hussein. The White House will likely receive a final commitment for some sort of support for an Iraq campaign over the next few weeks, despite the fact that the war remains highly unpopular in Turkey. Although it is expected to sign off on the use of bases by the U.S. in the eleventh hour, Turkey's new government is finding it difficult for domestic reasons to agree to the presence of U.S. troops on Turkish soil for a possible northern front against Baghdad. In the end, Ankara might agree to a lesser number of troops than Washington would like and might request a comparable Turkish military presence in northern Iraq.

In return for its support on Iraq, Ankara is negotiating an economic aid package with the U.S. to cover its anticipated losses from a war, firm U.S. guarantees that it will not allow a Kurdish state to be established in northern Iraq, and greater market access for Turkish exports in the United States. During the meeting at the White House, Erdogan jokingly suggested to Bush that Turkey be made a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Though an impossibility for geographic reasons, and also due to the binding nature of Turkey's customs union agreement with the European Union, the remark underscores the deeply entrenched and widespread Turkish desire for closer ties with the United States to compensate for what Turks feel they do not get from Europe.

Despite this, Turkey continues to press ahead with the reforms required by the EU for membership. There is consensus in Brussels that Turkey has fulfilled the economic aspects of the EU's standardized Copenhagen criteria and has taken steps in meeting the political requirements, which read as "the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the respect and protection of minorities."

Turkey's last government passed a reform package in the eleventh hour before the elections. These reforms abolished capital punishment, significantly widened freedom of expression and other political freedoms, and legalized Kurdish -- and other non-Turkish -- language broadcasts. Though deemed insufficient in an October 2002 EU interim report, these amendments were further solidified by an expanded reform package, which the Turkish parliament passed just prior to the Copenhagen summit by an overwhelming majority. This second package widens personal political freedoms and reflects the new government's declared zero-tolerance policy toward torture and other abuses by the police, which have, in the past, loomed large in Turkish-European relations. With these reforms, democratic freedoms in Turkey will be significantly improved within the legal context.

The EU has made it clear that, over the next two years, it will also focus on the implementation of the Copenhagen principles. In the wake of the Copenhagen summit, Ankara signaled that these reforms would not just stay on paper, as it quickly reversed death row sentences to life imprisonment and lifted prohibitions on Kurdish language television. Up to December 2004, Europe will no doubt scrutinize the new government's ability to enact its zero-tolerance policy on torture, reinforce civilian institutions, and take steps to achieve a lasting solution in Cyprus.

On Cyprus, Erdogan and Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul have already broken from the previous government's position by calling for a swift solution and linking a Cyprus settlement to Turkey's advancement in Europe. Turkey's new government will likely continue to lobby Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and the larger Turkish establishment to accept the new U.N. peace plan as the basis for negotiations aimed at reaching a lasting settlement on the island, despite the various objections to the plan by both sides.

Apart from the new government's willingness to sign a deal on Cyprus, a major factor that makes possible a breakthrough by the U.N.'s February 28, 2003 deadline for an agreement is the overwhelming support for a solution among Turkey's mainstream media. Over the last month, and, significantly, since the Copenhagen summit, numerous editorials have lamented the failure of the two sides to accept the U.N. deal, arguing that the best outcome for the Turkish Cypriots would be their entry into the EU alongside the Greek Cypriots.

Still, there are enough reasons to remain skeptical about the prospects of a Cyprus breakthrough soon. While the months ahead are critical for Cyprus, the willingness of the Turkish government to meet the U.N. deadline for a settlement could still be hampered by the objections of Denktash -- and those of the Greek Cypriot side -- and by a possible shift in Turkey's foreign policy in the wake of a war with Iraq. Over the last few weeks, since discussions on the U.N. plan started, Denktash has often been able to convince the new foreign policy team in Ankara of the merits of his objections to it.
Emboldened by the Greek Cypriot public's resistance to the plan, as evidenced by many different public opinion polls, Denktash is expected to continue negotiations but maintain his opposition to the proposals in the plan. With the war against Iraq looming, the Cyprus issue will likely take a back seat in Turkey's foreign policy and in Turkish-U.S. relations.

Clearly, the Copenhagen summit was an insufficient incentive for striking the elusive Cyprus deal. In the summit's wake, it is hard to predict whether either the Greek Cypriots or the Turkish Cypriots will feel that there is an incentive to make the necessary compromises and sign on to a deal by the U.N. deadline of February 28. If a "Plan B" becomes necessary, Turkey will once again look to Washington, not Brussels, for the assurances it needs to finally resolve the Cyprus problem.

Asla Aydintasbas is a New York-based journalist who writes on Turkey and Iraq for a wide range of Turkish and international publications including the Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and the Turkish dailySabah. Prior to moving to New York in 1997, she covered the Middle East and Turkey as an Istanbul-based correspondent.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant