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José Ignacio Torreblanca: Cold feet in a Turkish bath

10 novembre 2009

In English, « to get cold feet » is an expression used to describe situations where we are invaded by last minute doubts. It can describe the jitters actors feel just as they are about to go out on stage, or what some couples go through before tying the knot. For purists of Castilian traditions, it is akin to the bullfighting term espantá or, more technically speaking, « making a dash for the bullring barrier like the devil’s got a hold of you ».

It is also what the EU is going through with respect to Turkey. Sixty years after Turkey became one the founding members of the Council of Europe, we are still debating its Europeanness. In 1963, 1987, 1999 and again in 2005, the EU confirmed Turkey as eligible for membership status – which is to say, on each and every one of the occasions in which it had to declare itself in this regard. What’s more, the decision to get accession negotiations underway was voted unanimously by the 25 members present at the December 2004 European Council and was ratified in the European Parliament with 407 votes in favour (and 202 against). Yet the EU and Turkey have been locked in a vicious circle of mutual suspicion and distrust since accession negotiations began in 2005, according to the recent report by the Independent Commission on Turkey made up by Martti Ahtisaari, Emma Bonino, Anthony Giddens, Michel Rocard and Spain’s Marcelino Oreja, amongst others.

On the European side of the equation, the EU has entered a severe phase of introspection and self-doubt of late. It has erroneously laid the blame relating to the failed drafting and ratification of the European Constitution at the door of the enlargement process to central and eastern Europe and the new members there, preferring to concentrate (in actual fact, console itself) on what some have called a « consolidation phase ». But a much more uncomfortable reality lies behind the rhetoric; the coming to power of Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Angela Merkel in Germany has amounted to a radical change in Europe’s Turkish policy. In contrast to the position of their predecessors (Chirac and Schröder), both leaders have made their opposition to Turkish accession perfectly clear on numerous occasions, preferring to offer a « privileged relationship » in its place; so cold feet on one side of the table at any rate.

On the Turkish side, the country’s European vocation has been steadily weakening as a result of Brussels’ continual slights and snubs. Against all forecasts, Erdogan’s moderate Islamists swiftly adopted up to ten constitutional reforms, seeking to bring the Turkish constitution into line with EU requirements. But in view of the lack of progress in negotiations for entry into the European Union (only one of the thirty five chapters making up the process have been resolved satisfactorily in four years), the Turkish side has lost faith in the EU. The consequences of this are deeply concerning; the moderate Islamists initially believed that EU accession would help them consolidate power vis-a-vis the Army and the secular parties. Today, however, the Islamists are consolidating their power and seeking its institutionalization by more orthodox means (by control of the State apparatus, harassing critical media outlets and the affirmation of religious values over civil liberties). Cold feet on the Turkish side too then, where according to polls only 30% of Turks feel European.

The result is that, instead of converging, Turkey and the EU are steadily moving away from each other due to a vicious circle whereby the lack of incentives weakens reforms, which in turn moves Turkey further away from the EU, and so on and so forth. We are dealing in essence with a self-fulfilling prophecy; and indeed if 73% of Turks wanted accession in 2004, only 47% support it today. Revealingly, two out of three Turks don’t believe their country will ever become a member of the EU. Things don’t look any better from the European side either, with two out of three Europeans opposed to accession and only one in three in favour.

One of the worst kept secrets in Brussels these days is that nobody believes the negotiations will lead to a successful conclusion; and if neither side has thrown in the towel and broken off negotiations, it is only because nobody wants to make the first move and pay the price of pulling back. Turkish EU accession was a project of the European elite and a cosmopolitan minority, but the elite has lost its nerve. Rebuilding relations after this espantá will be no easy matter.

By José Ignacio Torreblanca

Source: This article was published in El País on 2 November 2009.

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