Turkey has long aligned itself with Western powers, dating back to Ottoman participation in the Concert of Europe. It’s currently a member of the Council of Europe, the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Many Turks view accession to the European Union (EU) as the capstone to its longstanding ambition to be recognized as a modern European power. Others in Turkey, however, are leery of EU-inspired democratization schemes and wonder if admission is indeed worth the cost of the ticket.

If the accession partnership between the EU and Turkey ultimately falters, Turkey could well end adrift, isolated, and more sympathetic toward Russia, Iran, and possibly China. Long the most eastward player among Western powers, Turkey could well reposition itself as the most western power among a loose bloc of Eastern players.

Turkey — like Spain, Greece, and the Balkan states before it — must democratize further to successfully emerge from accession negotiations with a membership offer, but internal politics and frustrated relations with Europe threaten to imperil the process. In early November, the European Commission released its annual report on Turkey’s progress toward accession. The report criticizes the slow pace of Turkish reforms and problems with their implementation, while highlighting the lack of compromise and political dialogue among Turkey’s political parties.

When Turkey became an official candidate for membership at the Helsinki summit in December 1999, an avalanche of reforms soon followed in order to meet criteria required for accession talks to begin. Reform continued unabated following the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) landslide victory in the 2002 elections, and in October 2005, Turkey officially commenced accession negotiations. Following the Helsinki summit, however, the steam driving the reform revolution dissipated, causing the accession process to sputter.

Although such reform fatigue is perhaps inevitable — much like the exhaustion that sets in after the first third of a marathon race — the slow pace has seemed to take Turkey off the accession track and imperil Turkey-EU relations. Growing resentment of European demands, returning problems with Cyprus and the Kurds, and a revamped Turkish nationalism have all contributed to muting the hopeful ebullience of the early years of the reform process. While the AKP’s recently proposed third national program to accelerate accession is designed to reignite the process, many within and outside the party still seem largely ambivalent. Turkey’s relations with Europe and the United States — and by extension Turkey’s future as a stable democracy allied with the West — thus remain largely up in the air.

Significance of the Accession Process

Turkey is lured by the prospects of EU membership for both historical and economic reasons. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who modernized the country along European lines, aspired to see it recognized as a European power. The Europe that transfixed Atatürk is no longer an imperial collection of states but rather a thriving economic market. But the pending relationship between the EU and Turkey isn’t simply economic. Amidst the wreckage of World War II, Europe radically transformed itself into a post-national union, with an overwhelming commitment to participatory democratic institutions and the strongest human rights regime in modern history. Through accession, aspiring member countries must not only adopt EU political norms but, in doing so, undergo political transformation parallel to that taken by Europe after the Second World War. Thus, EU accession is as much a major domestic process as it is a cementing of external relations.

As Turkey undertakes the reforms needed to meet criteria needed for EU accession eligibility, its citizens face heady questions about the direction in which to take their country. At one end of the spectrum are Europhiles, who wish to see Turkey enter the EU and move closer to international norms of human rights and democratic governance. At the other end are Euroskeptics, who are less keen to see their country make the sacrifices to sovereignty that EU membership requires. Most Turks fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The Euroskeptics oppose reforms they see as diminishing the state’s police power in dealing with ethnic and religious minorities, political dissenters, and other elements that “threaten the solidarity” of the Turkish nation-state. Euroskeptics are also leery of reducing the power of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the judiciary, both bastions of the old elite. Whereas Europhile Turks largely support continued and improved relations with Western powers, many Euroskeptics, sometimes called Asianists, are starting to look to emerging powers in the East with which to build future relations. Hurt feelings over a failed accession process could push Turkey closer to these non-Western powers, something that neither Europe nor the United States desires.

Building Positive Relations

Yet some European leaders seem determined to push Turkey further eastward. Both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have expressed support for a “privileged partnership” for Turkey in lieu of full membership. From similar arrangements the EU has made with other Mediterranean countries, it is clear that such an offer would in no way carry as much diplomatic leverage as full membership. At this point, such second-class membership represents backtracking from earlier European pledges.

Turkey-EU relations have been further soured by Turkey’s failure to abide by its commitment to open its ports to Cyprus. As a result, in 2006, the European Council suspended eight of the 35 policy chapters to be successfully negotiated if Turkey is to become a member, and ruled that no chapter can be closed until Turkey reverses its position on Cyprus. Negotiations focus on the candidate’s adoption, implementation, and enforcement of EU policies. After unanimously closing a chapter, the European Council decides that an acceding country’s policies are adequately in line with those of the EU. Only upon closure of all 35 chapters will a treaty be executed to finalize Turkey’s accession into the EU. So far only one chapter, science and technology, has been closed. The EU’s suspension of chapters has no effect in preventing Turkey from moving forward with legislation, especially in those policy areas where negotiations are expected to be difficult. However, the suspension has deeply offended many Turks and remains a source of political ill will on which Turkish politicians frequently harp.

In the meantime, EU politicians should remain positively consistent in their positions on Turkish membership, assuring full accession if it successfully meets the accession criteria. In recent months, Europe’s position on this point has improved. In June, the French Senate rejected a law that would have required Turkish membership to be submitted to referendum. Also, France’s turn with the EU presidency has resulted in the opening of two more chapters of EU policy — company law and intellectual property law — and an expressed hope that two more, information society and media and free movement of capital, will be opened at the European Summit in December. France also created goodwill in November, when its Senate struck down a bill to make it illegal to deny claims of Armenian genocide. Much can also be said of gestures like Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s celebration of iftar — the breaking of the Ramadan fast — with Turkish politicians in Istanbul this September. Another encouraging factor in EU-Turkey relations is that Turkish attitudes toward Europe seem to have improved following the attempt by anti-democratic forces to close the AKP this past March. Right now, support for EU membership is at its highest level since 2005.

Turkish politicians need to stay focused on the accession process and eschew verbal confrontations with EU politicians. Sadly, this is something neither Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan nor Foreign Minister/EU Chief Negotiator Ali Babacan has succeeded in doing. At a meeting of the EU troika in Brussels this past September, Erdoğan lambasted the EU for double standards and intimated that Turkish membership was solely up to the Europeans. In fact, Turkey has much to do if it is to meet the political and economic criteria for membership, and such claims do little to assuage very real concerns in Europe about Turkey’s lackluster human rights regime. Many EU citizens are also skeptical of the EU’s already stretched economic capacity to absorb less affluent member states, and a smaller group has reservations about Turkey’s Muslim identity.

While the xenophobia of the latter is difficult to address, Turkish politicians can certainly do more to alleviate the concerns of reluctant Europeans. To begin, Turkey could send a powerful message to assuage reservations about its treatment of religious minorities by re-opening the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary the state has kept closed for some time. Both Greece and Cyprus would approve of such a simple gesture. In Cyprus, Turkey should strengthen fledging alliances with Greek Cypriots to build support for a bicommunal solution, as well as look for and publicize foreign policy positions it shares with Europe, such as criticism of ally Uzbekistan for the Andijan massacre in 2004. Turkey would do well to work with Europe to devise mutually beneficial energy solutions, in particular the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, to supply Europe with natural gas from Central Asia. The Nabucco pipeline is vital for European energy independence from Russia. The Turkish government should also bolster support for Europe within Turkey, highlighting the rewards of membership while debunking baseless rumors about the costs of membership that have ranged from mandates to remove images of Atatürk from public buildings to outlawing the selling of kokoreç (Turkish tripe) on the streets.

U.S. Interests in Turkey

Turkey’s AKP-led government, having survived a recent court case attempting to close it down for anti-secular activities, will be expected to move forward with its newly drafted third national program. However, as the only political party in power with a pro-EU position, the AKP has little incentive to push for reforms with which it disagrees or put it at political risk. At the moment, opposition political parties protest even the smallest, most cosmetic of reforms, and too often the accession process is used as a pawn in internal political gamesmanship.

The AKP, for its part, has lost the support of many liberal reformers who have come to doubt its sincerity and/or competence in moving Turkey toward liberal democracy and eventual EU membership. Thus, implementation of the party’s third national program will be a test for the party, as well as the Turkish public, although significant progress will not likely be made on the reform package until after local elections in March 2009.

As Turkey struggles to position itself somewhere between Europhilia and Euroskepticism, the United States must continue to support Turkish accession into the EU. For its part, it should ignore neoconservative efforts to undermine the AKP, meanwhile doing all it can to improve its own relations with Turkey, mainly through encouraging dialogue between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) The more the Turkish government works directly with the KRG, the less likely the United States will be caught in disputes between the two. Any convergence of interests arrived at through talks between Turkey and the KRG is to the benefit of the United States. Further welcome is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent praise of Turkey’s efforts to build a regional alliance in Central Asia, after a period of initial resistance to the initiative resulting from its exclusion of the United States and the EU. Turkey as an EU member would be valuably cemented to the West, serving as an important bridge to Central Asia as well as a potential peacemaking force in the Middle East.

Barack Obama’s presidential win offers further opportunity to strengthen relations with Turkey. As a function of his opposition to the Iraq War and his message of “change,” the president-elect enjoys popularity in Turkey akin to the popularity with which former President Bill Clinton was met on his visit following the 1999 earthquakes. Obama’s promise to restore good relations with Turkey is eagerly received by many Turks, though not without caveats. Many Turks are leery of Obama’s position on the Armenian massacres of 1915, and his recognition of them as genocide would badly damage U.S.-Turkey relations. Also feared are Vice President-Elect Joe Biden’s previously expressed plans for a tripartite division of Iraq, which Turkey believes would empower the KRG and possibly foment calls for a united and independent Kurdistan. However, if Obama treads carefully on the Armenian issue, and supports a regional solution to terrorist efforts of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which involves Turkey and the KRG as well as Baghdad, the next administration has a tremendous possibility to rebuild relations that the Iraq War badly damaged.

, Ragan Updegraff is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, a freelance writer and observer of Turkish politics. You can find more of his work in his blog, Turkish Politics in Action.