Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Why the European Union needs Turkey

By Guler Sabanci
Published: November 7 2006 02:00

Turkey has been an integral part the twists and turns of European history for 700 years. She has had her good days and bad days, she has played with strong hands and weak hands, but she has always been an influential player at the table of European politics. Our countries know each other rather well.
We should remember this long history of engagement when discussing Turkey's European Union membership negotiations, which formally began just last year. An EU report on the progress of the talks, due to be released tomorrow, is being seen by some as a "crisis point". Yet there will be no vote on accepting Turkey as a full member of the union for at least another decade.
The progress report is important but must be seen in this context. It is an interim document that underlines what still remains to be done as opposed to celebrating what has been achieved. By its very nature it cannot do justice to the profound importance of these talks when it comes to facing the global issues of tomorrow.
The main challenges facing humanity over the coming century cannot be tackled at the level of a single nation state. Climatic changes, potential pandemics, the gap between rich and poor, security and immigration all are problems that require a governance system that covers significantly more than current sovereign areas. The EU is a vaguely understood, but courageous, search for such a new governance structure. My country has to be a part of this. Turning inward and trying to close the world out is a backward step, both for the EU and Turkey.
The strategic importance of Turkey within Europe is undeniable. Her experience with multi-ethnic and multi-denominational governance structures, geographic position, historical ties with and knowledge of areas to its south and east, its young population, access to energy and control of water resources make Turkey a critical player in the emerging EU.
The main problem is political. Economic fears are often cited but those arguments are quite empty. For sure, the current rules of the EU would require a transfer of resources to Turkey for about 10 to 15 years. However, in plain business terms the discounted present value of Turkey's contributions to an ageing Europe beyond that period is greater than the outlay. In the long run, in economic terms Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe.
We are moving towards a lofty goal but the road there is narrow and leaves little room for manoeuvre. After 700 years of dealing with each other, all parties can point to historical reasons for caution. As the process is not really one of "negotiating" but checking to see if Turkey fulfils certain conditions for entry, it is by its very nature unilateral. Any unilateral process is open to all sorts of misunderstandings that need a conscious effort to prevent or undo. There are some principles to follow that will make this process easier.
First, unilateral does not - should not - mean "arbitrary" or "variable". If it is seen that way the "candidate" may lose interest. Something of this nature has been happening to Turkish public opinion, in particular with respect to Cyprus. After the accession of a divided Cyprus to the EU - in spite of the Greek Cypriot rejection of the United Nations plan supported by the EU - the agreement whereby sanctions on North Cyprus were to be lifted as a first step seems to have been forgotten. Yet the demands on Turkey remain.
Second, there is a need to find a way of providing "wiggle room" for all parties to allow politicians to win the support of their public. It is in no one's interest to push any party into a corner from which they cannot emerge.
Third, the EU must avoid blatant asymmetry. Turkey can not be chastised for parts of its penal code that may inhibit freedom of expression while member states try to criminalise historical debate about what happened to Armenian and Turkish communities during the first world war in a manner that inhibits free speech and research to expose the truth.
Fourth, there is a need to keep "pressure" in the system to ensure that the requisite reforms are being implemented, in particular the legal protection of the individual. This should not be hard as there are many non-governmental organisations in Turkey pushing for such reforms irrespective of the EU talks.
Most important there is a need for sincerity, an honest effort on both sides to arrive at a successful result, Turkey's accession as a full member. It is unfortunate that pandering to domestic political concerns has led to suspicions that the ongoing process may be insincere, with member states going through the motions in full knowledge that they have a preference for an outcome other than full membership.
In spite of all the fears over a significant setback, I am optimistic that the talks will eventually reach a successful conclusion. A number of things can, and will, change in the next decade. Politicians will come and go and old fears will be faced by new concerns. Our old continent has made errors of judgment in its long history but seldom has it been unable to sense where its true interests lie over an extended period of time.
The writer is chairman and managing director of Sabanci Group, the Turkish conglomerate