EU Caught In A Diplomatic Twist Over Muslim State

This article first appeared in the 28 December 2006 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Turkey needs help from an honest broker such as Ireland if it is to get a fair accession hearing from the EU, argues Richard Whelan.

The EU has frozen negotiations in eight of the 35 legislative areas Turkey must complete for EU accession, and will review annually Turkey’s compliance with its requirements. The EU has also agreed to re-examine commitments it made about ending its economic blockade of Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus.

This is somewhat rich as the EU caused the current impasse by admitting Cyprus to EU membership in 2004 with its dispute within Cyprus and with Turkey unresolved. To “thank” the EU, the Greek Cypriot government has since blocked the EU’s plans with respect to the Turkish part of Cyprus and insists it will continue to do so.

The need for the Turks to open their ports and airports to Greek Cypriots was always going to provoke a clash unless the EU met Turkey halfway with respect to its treatment of the Turkish Cypriots.

In one of the extraordinary ironies of international diplomacy, the Greek Cypriots – having turned down UN proposals for solving the Cypriot problem while the Turkish Cypriots accepted them – were admitted to the EU and placed in a position of having the opportunity to “derail” Turkish EU accession. This they then promptly set about doing. Placing Cyprus in that position internationally and within the EU was a major diplomatic failure by both the UN and the EU, a failure which has not been addressed since. Unfortunately, the Turks are now being blamed for these failures as no one challenges the Greek Cypriots.

Turkey’s application to join the EU may not be derailed, but it is faring badly and needs help of the kind that a diplomatic intervention by an independent and respected EU member can provide.

The intractable and unexpected approach of the Greek Cypriots is supported by other EU members, who are less willing to take responsibility for turning Turkey away from the West. These countries include Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria and some sections in France and Germany. Such opposition to Turkish EU accession has many motives, including historic European fears of Muslim encroachment, widespread failure to absorb Muslim minorities due to an absence of “attitudinal integration”, and enlargement fatigue. Others who oppose Turkish EU accession do so because of concerns over their treatment of the Kurds, the Armenian issue and their poor record on human rights. Such opposition assumes Turkey will not change – which is wrong – and that the Turkey of today would be the Turkey granted EU accession in 10 or 15 years. This would be anything but the case – Ireland changed dramatically during its EU accession discussions.

Turkey is unique in Islam: it is not part of the Arab world and has been involved in a turn to the West for at least 150 years, and has been seeking EU accession for 43 years. Turkish EU accession would give the lie to the constant refrain from al-Qaeda and groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir that the West and Islam are on fundamentally opposed paths.

The EU has much to gain from Turkey. It has successfully confronted its religious extremists for many years. Its army has a unique role as the protector of secularism. The EU wants this changed, ignoring the growing expert view that, perhaps for a transitional period until democratic norms are fully established, it is a good safeguard in Muslim states against religious extremists.

If we want continued economic growth in the EU, we need significant immigration. Turkey can be a safe source of workers that are unlikely to contain al-Qaedaist cells within them. Refusing Turkey EU accession would be quite negative. The impact on Turkish opinion and the future direction of Turkish diplomacy would be bad enough, but the impact would be catastrophic on moderate Muslims worldwide, confirming the fundamental conflict between “westernism” and Islam.

This would provide “warm water” for al-Qaeda to swim in.

Ireland on the other edge of the EU, having gone through serious difficulties in gaining EU accession, should take up the challenge of championing Turkish EU accession.

Many years ago, Frank Aiken pushed non-proliferation hard at the UN and that effort, on top of our perceived neutrality, helps make the Non-Proliferation Treaty a reality. Brian Lenihan snr, much in the news recently, was conspicuously brave in the EU in pushing recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That stance, so lonely then, is fully accepted by all parties in the Middle East now.

On January 1st, Germany takes up the EU presidency. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has long opposed Turkish EU membership, preferring a form of privileged association. Without a major diplomatic push by Dermot Ahern, Turkey’s position will slowly but surely erode. Turkey is genuine in its western orientation, believing in a convergence not a clash of civilisation.

The people of the EU need to understand the strategic issues involved. In this matter, Ireland can fulfil a role as an honest broker.

If the EU is to eventually say "no" to Turkey, this is best done in 10 or 15 years, having given it full and fair consideration. That would also be when the negative impact of its rejection would be much less than it would be now – once the failures in Iraq and the war on terror were a distant memory.

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