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January 20, 2013, Sunday

Turkey and Britain: privileged partners in the EU?

It is unfortunate yet perfectly understandable that Turks are no longer interested in EU affairs. A diminishing majority still favor membership but who can blame them for losing their enthusiasm?

Turkey's growing self-confidence and economic rise in the last years more or less coincided with the meltdown of European economies. There is a combination of sarcasm and schadenfreude when Turkish policymakers now say “The EU is always welcome to join Turkey!”

At the heart of Turkey's resentment towards Europe is the feeling of humiliation. No one in Turkey believes that the EU treats Turkey with respect. It is well known that leading EU countries such as France and Germany have strong reservations about Ankara joining the club. Rightly or wrongly, Turks perceive double standards and Islamophobia when Berlin and Paris talk about a “privileged partnership” with Turkey instead of a full membership. No one so far has been able to convincingly define what privileged partnership looks like. As a result, most Turks see it as “second-class membership.” It is probably because of such feelings of European prejudice against their own country that an overwhelming majority of Turks believe that membership is not likely to happen in their lifetime. Recently, the Turkish prime minister pronounced 2023, the centennial of the republic, as a sort of deadline for Turkey's EU membership. The message was clear: there is an end to Turkey's patience.

This is where the recent talk about a British exit, the so-called “Brexit,” from the EU becomes relevant for Ankara. British Prime Minister David Cameron will finally give his much anticipated major speech outlining London's approach to the European Union sometime this week. He is under severe pressure from his Conservative Party and probably the majority of the British public to call for a referendum about whether his country should stay in the European Union. At a time when Germany and France seem to be moving forward with plans for a stronger fiscal and banking union to complement the monetary union, Britain is growing increasingly skeptical about its future in Europe. The UK had already opted to stay out of the eurozone when the common currency was created and it is also out of many EU-wide policies such as the Schengen area governing visa rules.

It would of course be absurd for Turkey to support a Brexit from the EU. Yet, such an outcome could pave the road for something interesting for Turkey. Instead of a full divorce, the potential Brexit scenario is likely to create a new type of relationship between London and Brussels. In time, this may provide the blueprint for the “privileged partnership” that France and Germany seem to favor with Turkey. In short, the emergence of a privileged partnership between London and Brussels could serve as a model for Turkish-EU relations as well. The already existing “à la carte” relationship between the EU and the UK could even be codified into a category of membership that would be applicable to other countries opting to be out of the inner-circle of more federalist minded members such as France and Germany.

Turkey and Britain both share similar political cultures in the sense that they are both sovereign conscious countries with strong imperial legacies. They both feel somewhat distant to the post-nationalist and federalist tendencies of Berlin and Paris. If Turkey had been a member, it would have probably sided with the UK rather than with Germany and France on foreign and security matters. Under normal circumstances, it would not be in Turkey's national interest to lose the UK as one of the strongest supporters of Ankara in the European Union.

But one can also see the limits of British influence in the EU. After all, the EU takes decisions by unanimity. And when French or German leaders take decisions on Turkish membership, they hardly feel the urge to consult with London. So who knows, maybe one day Turkey will join the UK with its own referendum on the EU. The question for Turks will be clear: Do you want to wait another generation for an elusive EU membership? Or do you want to be a privileged partner of the EU like the UK?

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