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Quo vadis Europe?

Friday 20 June 2008, by Ömer Taspinar

While Ankara is busy shooting itself in the foot with the closure case against the ruling party, major events are unfolding in Europe and the Middle East. Despite all the distractions at home, Turkey needs to pay attention to what is going on in its strategic horizons.

The most important development of last week was on the European front, and it was not a pretty sight. The Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty came as a shock to all believers in the European project. Brussels and the European technocracy desperately needed to show that the EU was finally back on its feet after the French and the Dutch rejection of the constitutional treaty in 2005. To their dismay, three years after the French and Dutch “No” came the Irish rebuke.

The Irish referendum once again illustrated the huge disconnect between Brussels and the European masses. While the European Union, at its core, is about supra-nationalism and collective decision making, the new trend in Europe is about political, national and populist sovereignty. For Dutch, French and Irish voters, the European Union has become a convenient scapegoat for all the external political and economic forces that cannot be fully controlled at home. The issues at stake vary from the ability to determine the domestic level of taxes — something crucial for the Irish since low taxes fueled the Celtic tiger’s economic performance and ability to attract foreign direct investment over the last 15 years — to immigration policies in the case of France and Holland. In all of these cases the EU symbolizes an external attempt at regulating domestic affairs in a “one size fits all” fashion. Unless Brussels finds a quick and convincing way out of this crisis, the EU will remain a political, military and foreign policy dwarf despite its status as an economic giant.

This political predicament in Europe does not bode well for a country like Turkey, where hopes for domestic democratization are strongly tied to the EU’s ability to provide a strategic and political anchor. Simply put, for Brussels to serve as a catalyst for Turkish democratization, the EU needs to be properly functioning. Most importantly, Turks need to see that EU enlargement — arguably the most successful of EU policies — is alive and well. Europe will not be able to expand unless it figures out how to effectively function with 27 members. In European jargon this is called “absorption capacity.” The Lisbon treaty that Ireland rejected was an attempt to achieve just that through the streamlining of EU functions and institutions. Why is the absorption capacity of the EU so important for Turkey? The short answer has to do with the “political feasibility of membership” combined with the need to maintain motivation for membership. In other words, EU membership needs to remain an achievable goal for Turkey. Otherwise, Ankara and the Turkish people at large will lose their interest and enthusiasm for this project.

If is often said that the journey is as important as the final destination when it comes to Turkey’s quest for EU membership. This is still largely true. Yet for the journey to remain on track one needs political motivation. Without motivation the journey unravels. The current political situation in Turkey is a living example of this predicament. The decline in Turkish popular support for EU membership over the last three years is equally disturbing. Much has been made about the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) loss of enthusiasm for the EU over the last three years. Most Turkish liberals, including myself, believe that Ankara made a major mistake by not pursuing more aggressively its pro-reform and democracy EU agenda after the beginning of accession negotiations in 2005.

But very few of us realize that Europe’s own lack of direction exacerbated Turkey’s problems. Turkey needs a strong political anchor in Europe and when Europe gives mixed signals to Turkey because of its own problems in Brussels, the impact on domestic Turkish reforms is largely negative. Europe’s inability to solve its institutional and structural problems has unfortunately contributed to Turkey drifting away from the European orbit. As Europe lost its sense of direction, so did Turkey. It was a mutually reinforcing process. After the Franco-Dutch rejection of the constitutional treaty in 2005, Europe lost considerable enthusiasm about its own future. A sense of economic malaise, enlargement fatigue and growing populism set in. Similar things can be said about Turkey’s own reform fatigue. Simply put, Turkey needs a strong Europe in order to solve its problems. This is why the Irish “No” is bad news not only for Europe but also for the future of Turkey-EU relations.

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Sources

Source : TDZ, 16.06.2008

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