Yet leading proponents in France, Germany and elsewhere have failed to spell out what this policy might be, even though talk of a substitute arrangement for Turkey puts European credibility, intellectual honesty and long-term interests at stake.
Among the first to propose "privileged partnership" was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in 2004, trying to find ways to fit German public concerns to Turkish expectations.
But little perceptible intellectual effort has gone into developing the concept, even though French President Nicolas Sarkozy, outgoing European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering and other European conservatives have joined the bandwagon since then. And, at the same time as their leaders are proposing the idea, the German and French governments have published no documents saying how this "privileged partnership" can substitute for Turkey's existing EU Associate Membership. Small wonder that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told journalists last week, "I don't know what privileged partnership means."
Indeed, the only theoretical study apparently available dates back to 2004. By Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, currently Germany's minister of the economy, the 33-page document is in many ways the proof of what Euro-skeptical Turks used to pun about Europe's old Common Market:
"They keep the partnership in common for themselves. And they keep us as the market." Or, in plain English, having one's cake and eating it, too.
Zu Guttenberg's plan would extend the existing EU-Turkey customs union into areas advantageous to the union -- agriculture and services -- while allowing Turkey into most European institutions as an observer only. There would be consultative mechanisms, but they closely resemble those that Turkey already has in the Association Council.
Turkey would be integrated in European defense, security and foreign policy mechanisms, with eventual full membership in the relevant decision-making bodies. This is an advance on the current situation, but it is not particularly generous, considering that Turkey has already helped defend Europe for 57 years as a full and continuing member of NATO. However, zu Guttenberg stipulates that before this can happen, the EU has to make binding decisions on its Middle East policy and the "strategic meaning of Turkey for the EU." He rules out monetary union, stipulates that the EU ends at the border of Turkey and ignores the historical and emotional sides of the arguments for Turkey in Europe.
Other published proposals for "privileged partnership" have been even more broad-brush. The European People's Party members of the European Parliament in 2005 offered an eight-point plan suggesting the integration of Turkey into EU trade policy, full judicial cooperation, control of immigration, cooperation in maritime security, development aid, joint defense and foreign policies, work on a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem and cultural/educational projects. Once again, EU concerns came first while Turkey's sovereign sensitivities were ridden over roughshod, with calls for its recognition of an Armenian genocide, the ceding of some of its control of the Bosporus waterway and allowing Europeans a share in controlling its external borders.
In short, "privileged partnership" offers no obvious new privileges to Turkey, even though it is a member of almost all pan-European organizations from the Council of Europe to soccer leagues, and is, in many ways, closer to the EU than any other non-member. Nor does it offer real new partnership, since the main goal appears to be either to control Turkey or to exclude it from the decision-making that would make it a true partner. Already, the EU happily concludes free trade deals with third parties that supposedly urge them to open their markets to Turkey. But these third countries are under no obligation and are reluctant to do so.
There is a downside to "privileged partnership" as well. European states have formally contracted with Turkey that it is in a process leading to full accession to the union, if and when it satisfies all the criteria. Reversing this obligation for transparent reasons of domestic politics sends a message that Europe cannot be trusted. There is an element of dishonesty, too. Politicians and commentators present the accession talks as if a poorer, over-populated Turkey was about to join tomorrow. In fact, the process will take a decade or even two, by which time the relative positions of fast-growing Turkey and a more stagnant Europe will doubtless be much changed. Fears of a flood of Turkish migrants are exaggerated -- free movement of Turkish labor will likely not be allowed for many further years, if ever. Even then, Turkey's accession can ultimately be vetoed by any government.
Turkey's negotiations to accede to the European Union are good for Turks and good for Europeans, as long-standing strategic allies and economic partners (see our August 2007 report, “Turkey and Europe: The Way Ahead”). On top of that, sweeping Turkish reforms from 2000-2005 showed that sincere cooperation towards EU accession helps in every area that Europe and Turkey want matters to improve: on human rights, on the Kurdish question, solving Cyprus, on limiting the role of Turkey's military and on empowering Turkey to be a force for stability in the troubled areas to its east. Not only that, but Turkey's economy grew 7 percent from 2002-2007, and foreign investment has rocketed up more than tenfold, most of it from Europe.
As Turkey's failure to sustain reforms since 2005 shows, it needs the goal of full EU membership as a vital locomotive in its transformation process. Updating laws, improving food hygiene standards and lowering emissions may be important, but they are disruptive and expensive, and any government needs to provide its population with motivation for difficult change. The goal of accession is still supported by half of all Turks, hoping that it will accelerate their country's progress towards greater prosperity, less corruption and a steady anchor for a two-century-old process of modernization and Europeanization.
Of course, not all the trouble in the EU-Turkey relationship is the EU's fault. Turkey should be doing much more to adopt EU laws and norms more quickly, and its leaders should do far more to remind Turkish people how much of their current prosperity and regional prestige is due to the EU convergence process. But since the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, Turkey founded itself on European models, Europe is by far the more powerful player, and the EU should take the lead in shaping its neighborhood in its own image.
In the circumstances, talk of "privileged partnership" thus looks more and more like a scapegoat for popular European fears about jobs, immigration and Islam. Blaming the EU-Turkey accession process does not just build up problems for the EU-Turkey relationship -- with all the lost opportunities that this implies for future cooperation between the EU and NATO, European energy security and cooperation with the Muslim world -- but it also delays an honest appraisal of the true causes of these fears in European states themselves.
*Hugh Pope is the project director of the International Crisis Group-Turkey/Cyprus.