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>> The Financial Times


TRIUMPHALIST TURKEY CAN'T GO IT ALONE

The Financial Times - April 19, 2012

by David Gardner

One of the most remarkable success stories of the past decade, the emergence of Turkey as a vibrant democracy and dynamic economy under the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democrats, may in the course of this decade become a casualty of the European Union’s chronic introversion.

The EU has lost its transformative power in Turkey. Just as the country’s Arab neighbours and western allies have woken up to the geostrategic value of Turkey’s ability to straddle east and west, the EU has surrendered its own ability to drive forward a liberal agenda in Turkey through the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party. The democratic life of Turkey has visibly coarsened since its negotiations on entry into the EU started freezing up five years ago – in great part because Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, unlike their predecessors as French president and German chancellor, set their face against admitting a country they see as too big, too poor and, above all, too Muslim.

True, the EU as a whole is blocking accession talks because of the impasse over Cyprus, partitioned between its Greek and Turkish populations. But it is equally true that Brussels blundered by importing this unresolved dispute when it admitted the divided island in the 2004 EU enlargement. Subsequent attempts by France and Germany to slam the door on Turkey have soured its citizens and rulers on the idea of Europe, hitherto the glue of political cohesion for the country’s transition to full democracy.

The prospect of EU membership was the engine of reform during the first term of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, enabling him to neutralise the army, long the final arbiter of Turkish politics. Democratic renewal started going into reverse as soon as that engine stopped running. There are more than 100 journalists – apart from 50 generals – in Turkish jails. Mr Erdogan is increasingly intolerant of criticism and disdainful of consensus. His AKP government is grasping for control of almost every social sphere from sport to science.

Triumphantly re-elected for a third term in a landslide last June, the Erdogan government has little need to follow the so-called Copenhagen criteria, the democratic club rules of the EU, and Turkey has not come up with Ankara criteria to match them.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where Mr Erdogan’s Turkey now appears in the dock more often than Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is a partial brake on the slide towards authoritarianism. Two journalists jailed because of their writings on a shadowy Islamist movement inside the police and the judiciary were recently released two days before their complaint was due to be heard in Strasbourg. But Strasbourg is not Brussels.

While the EU has relinquished leverage, Mr Erdogan has acquired it, primarily because Europe and the US badly need Turkey to help deal with the tumult of the Arab Awakening and the challenge of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It was Istanbul that hosted last week’s tentative talks between Iran and the western powers plus Russia and China, and Turkey is the organising hub for the opposition to the Assad dictatorship in Syria, Iran’s ally.

As a member of Nato, Turkey and its army, the biggest in the alliance after the US, stood guard against the Soviet bloc at Europe’s south-eastern borders. That sentinel role was devalued by the end of the cold war. Now, Turkey once again is increasingly seen – and the Erdogan government certainly sees itself – as an indispensable bulwark of the western system.

The power of attraction of the successful AKP government has value at a time when the political revolutions upending the old Arab order are placing Islamist movements at or near the new centre of Arab political gravity.

More tangibly, President Barack Obama has come to rely on Mr Erdogan as a point man in the region, especially on Iran, with which Turkey is now engaged in a battle for regional influence. “This president is in love with our prime minister,” exclaims one Turkish editor, complaining that the west ignores Mr Erdogan’s bullying at home because of Turkey’s usefulness abroad. “For the US, who is in our jails is less important than whether we are onside on Iran or Syria,” adds a leading Turkish academic. That neither man any longer speaks on the record speaks for itself.

Yet, even assuming he wants to, Mr Erdogan cannot become a Putin. Nor can the Turkey he so dominates go it alone. For all the triumphalism about Turkey’s Chinese rates of economic growth compared with a stagnant and fragile eurozone, the success of its economy depends on its growing integration with the EU.

There are 14,000 EU companies in Turkey, and many of them transfer technology. If the boundlessly ambitious Mr Erdogan wants, say, an aerospace industry, he needs Europe. Turkey, moreover, has no oil. As an open economy it has to earn its living in the marketplace, and the EU is still by far its biggest market.

“This is not, thank God, a rentier economy,” says the academic. “We cannot behave like Putin’s Russia. The fact we have to make a living sets a floor against [the extent of] authoritarianism, but how do you break through the ceiling above to full democracy?” His answer is re-engagement with – and by – the EU.

Turkey’s value as an ally will rise if it can help steer transition in Europe’s Middle Eastern backyard. But European and US alignment with Ankara abroad is not enough. Only if the EU accession engine fires up again will it reignite the renewal Turkey still needs at home.

 





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