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Erdal Guven: Switching Sides?

Turkey has been striving to become a full member of the European Union since the signing of the Ankara Treaty in 1963. From a Turkish point of view the reasons for this endeavour are quite clear.

Becoming an integral and indispensable part of the West, has been Turkey’s biggest project of modernization from the day it was founded in 1923. NATO membership was a very important milestone in this process, but the final objective is EU membership. Turkey firmly believes that only via full integration with Europe will it be able transform and anchor itself in the West.

This is especially true as long as democratization, the most important pillar of the modernization project, is concerned. Additionally the prospect of EU membership with its economic benefits has become a very strong incentive in this process.

From the European point of view, it is clear that the EU needs Turkey, if it is ever to become a global player rather than an inward-looking continental power. The EU should also take into account Turkey’s growing economy and dynamic demography. A modernized Turkey in line with EU policies could come to play a decisive role in a wide range of issues; from illegal human trafficking to terrorism. Last but not least, including a predominantly Muslim country into a union of Christian countries will be the strongest message that the West is not at war with Islam.

Yet, there is much-debated question of whether the current Turkish government has shifted its axis. Turkey, under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, has recently been in the spotlight due to its opening towards the East, rather than its integration process into the West. Accordingly, it has been widely claimed, both at home and abroad, that ‘The Zero Problem’ policy with the neighbouring countries, the brainchild of the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has chade the focus of Turkish diplomacy away from the accession process. The deepening of ties with countries like Syria, and growing efforts to reach out to the Gulf countries appear to support this claim.

Although not totally baseless, the argument that Ankara has shifted its axis, misses an important aspect of the AK Party’s foreign policy. The AK Party wants to demonstrate Turkey’s unique position and strategic value for the West, by using its soft-power and diplomatic skills to become a stabilizing power-centre in a turbulent Eurasia.

In presenting itself in this light, Turkey has already made some headway.  Turkey played and role in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, Turkey seems to be ready to facilitate the nuclear rift between Iran and the West and the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Turkey could thus help heal the wounds afflicted by the division between Islam and the West

Therefore, it the foreign policy AK Party has been pursuing is not so much different from the traditional Turkish foreign policy which aims to placate the country as a solid bridge between the East and the West. The difference lies in AK Party government’s determination to fulfil this aim. Unlike the previous governments, rather than paying mere lip service to objectives, the current government has shown a clear commitment to that aim. Another point that distinguishes the AK Party government from its predecessors is that it has used its Islamic roots to improve the relations with the Muslim world.

The EU accession process is set to remain the top priority for Turkish foreign policy in the coming years. That being said, two obstacles are yet to be overcome by Turkey in order to achieve this goal. The first is the democratic deficit of the country. While Turkey has come a long way,  in order to become a full-fledged democracy, there is still much to be done in terms of human rights, minority issues and rule of law. The second obstacle is the foreign policy discords with the EU. These discords range from the Cyprus problem to the treatment of the Sudanese leader Omar al Bashir. Only by overcoming these obstacles could Turkey ask the EU to consider its membership.


Erdal Guven

– managing editor and columnist of Turkish daily Radikal; author of two books on Cyprus

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