Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 28 July 2011
Amid the noise of the euro rescue summit last week, one important announcement received very little attention. This is surprising since it was a strategic message from Europe’s only real tiger economy, which grew by more than 8 per cent last year, and has a population of more than 73 million people. It was an announcement from the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
At a speech in the northern, Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus, Erdoğanproclaimed that when the Greek dominated Southern Cyprus takes over the rotating EU presidency in July 2012, Turkey would suspend all its official contacts with the European Union for the six months’ duration of the presidency. This would happen, Erdoðan said in North Nicosia, unless a solution to the Cyprus question (a conflict smouldering since 1974) was found by the end of this year. Observers are wondering whether this could be interpreted as the moment that Turkey finally turned its back on the EU.
The core of Erdoğan’s announcement cannot surprise anyone. Turkey does not recognise the South Cypriot state, which has been an EU member since 2004. International attempts to resolve the Cyprus conflict have stalled since UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s plan to unite the country was rejected in a referendum in the same year.
To this day, Turkey remains the only country with diplomatic links to the North Cypriot administration. To expect the Turkish government to leave these entrenched conflicts behind and pretend it’s business as usual when Southern Cyprus leads the EU next year would have been quite naïve.
But it is not so much the announcement that raised eyebrows. Rather, it is its timing. It is still almost a year until Cyprus assumes the EU presidency. Crucially, Erdoğan’s intervention comes at a time of European weakness – a weakness triggered by Turkey’s arch enemy Greece and its financial crisis. Having the Turkish prime minister making public demands to the EU in the least diplomatic way, while threatening to just walk away from dialogue with Brussels, marks a new low in relations between Ankara and Europe.
In past decades, the relationship between Turkey and Europe has been complicated. On one hand, Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952 and as such has been a military ally of Western Europe. On the other hand, Turkey’s economic and political integration into European structures has been controversial, to say the least.
For a long time, Turkey’s economy did not even come close to European standards; the status of ethnic minorities was a matter of grave concern, and human rights issues in Turkey remained unresolved. Meanwhile, in many European countries, Turkey was simply not seen as ‘European enough’ to become a member of the European club. For these reasons, negotiations about a Turkish accession to the EU never substantially moved forward, despite Turkish attempts to respond to European demands.
The past decade has seen a role reversal in the relationship. Previously, Turkey appeared as the poor applicant to rich Western Europe. Now a fast growing Turkey wonders why it would really want to be part of a club that appears too weak to even solve its own problems. And in the same way that Turkey develops economically, it leaves behind any considerations of the old West’s diplomatic and security expectations from its long-time ally.
This is particularly true for Erdoğan’s administration. While acting as a liberating reformer on the economic front, his Muslim conservative party AKP has distanced the country from the West. Turkey was among the first countries to congratulate the radical-Islamic Hamas to its election victory in Gaza; it joined Syria for military exercises; it has held security conferences with Iran and Russia. In doing all of this, Turkey remained a NATO member committed to Western values in name only. In fact, it has turned into a very different kind of country.
For the European Union and the Western world, this poses difficult challenges. In the past, they could demand further democratic and human rights reforms of Turkey, which was eager to join the EU. With Turkey no longer pinning its hopes on an EU accession, such demands will now come to nothing. Instead, they may only reinforce Turkey’s reorientation away from the West.
This is the other side of the European debt crisis – that it not only weakens Europe financially, but it also diminishes Europe’s political influence and security significance. Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Turkish prime minister to lecture the Europeans from North Cyprus. Now Europe can only hope that the fastest growing economy in the region will not cut its ties to the EU and seek its place as a leader of the Muslim world instead.
As Europe is bound to look inwards to heal its own financial wounds, its neighbours are free to pursue their own agendas. In the long run, this may be an even more significant development than the European debt crisis.