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February 02, 2011, Wednesday

Turkey riding high

Turkey is riding high these days, and Turkish diplomacy was in full swing last week. In Brussels there were two Turkey-related events -- the visit by Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bağış, and “Bursa Days,” a three-day event to promote the city of Bursa. At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan was in Davos promoting Turkey’s increasing economic and political clout, while the prime minister and others were absorbed with events unfolding in Egypt and elsewhere.

While Bağış gave assurances that Ankara remains committed to taking the EU medicine, the Bursa Days event also held no surprises vis-à-vis the EU with a familiar message being conveyed: Turkey is going to solve all the EU’s problems and Turkey is going to make the EU a real global player. To some degree this is true. If Turkey was already in the EU, its response to what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere would probably have been more robust and influential rather than the weak and wishy-washy effort we have seen so far. The EU is seemingly more interested in discussing the never-ending euro crisis saga. Nevertheless, Turkey should not overplay its hand. Just because it is an increasingly important country, this does not give it the right to dictate how the negotiations should be carried out, which seems to be the case. Turkey has legal obligations it needs to meet, no matter how big and powerful it may believe itself to be. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) needs the EU -- to maintain stable and continuous foreign investment, for the reform process and for its own legitimacy.

On the Cyprus problem, while the EU as a body may say it desires a solution, some member states are happy to allow the problem to fester because they oppose Turkey’s membership. This was clear from the recent visit of Angela Merkel to Cyprus. Following her lead in congratulating the Greek Cypriots for the efforts they are putting into the peace talks, while at the same time condemning Turkey and therefore the Turkish Cypriots for not doing enough, it now seems French President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to do the same thing with a visit to Cyprus shortly. The EU is supposed to be supporting the UN in their efforts to find a solution. Quite how going to Nicosia and blaming one party is helping the process, I really wonder. It also comes at a time in the talks when both sides need to be more flexible. Merkel and Sarkozy may as well tell Dimitris Christofias, “No need to make any concessions, keep the island divided and keep Turkey out.” The fact is Turkey in the EU is the best insurance policy Cyprus could ever have for a stable, secure and prosperous future. This is what Sarkozy and Merkel should be saying.

In Davos, Babacan may have been correct when he said the EU is presently somewhat inward looking. However, I don’t believe he was right to claim the EU no longer has an “open door policy” or that it is a Christian club. Rather, the EU has adopted a “pick and choose carefully” approach to further enlargement. Therefore the door is seemingly closed to big or powerful countries, or countries which have historically been in another big power’s sphere of influence. The EU is not brave enough or visionary enough to look beyond this yet. Nowadays the door is wide open for Croatia, Iceland and all the countries of the Western Balkans. If tomorrow Norway or Switzerland decided they wanted in, I doubt there would be any objections. But of course Turkey is not Iceland or Serbia.

Babacan also accused the EU of being a Christian club. While it is unfortunate that in many EU states it is becoming increasingly socially acceptable to be anti-Muslim, which is very dangerous, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the EU is a Christian club. There are already 45 million Muslims living in Europe, and with the accession of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and eventually Kosovo (all predominantly Muslim states) this number will significantly increase. Turkey should refrain from playing the Muslim card and rather focus on getting its own house in order, particularly when it comes to the rights of religious minorities.

Turkey also seems set to take a key role in North Africa as events continue to unfold in Egypt and elsewhere. If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not on the phone with US President Barack Obama, then it’s with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or one of the countries themselves. There can be no nation better placed than Turkey to act as a negotiator if the need arises. It also offers an ideal opportunity for Erdoğan as he moves into election campaign mode.

However, let us not forget that amongst all this upheaval in North Africa there was a little noticed protest in northern Cyprus last Friday. Around 30,000 Turkish Cypriots took to the streets to protest austerity measures and ask Turkey to keep its hands off Cyprus. Take note, Ankara.

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