The question of whether to integrate Turkey into the European Union requires a balancing of costs and benefits across Europe’s entire portfolio of political, economic, and security interests. Expanding the Union to include a state that would be among its largest, poorest, and furthest to the East would clearly have a wide range of consequences. In this post, I will argue that Turkey’s inclusion in the EU is unlikely to make it a model of Islamic democracy for the Arab world to emulate nor will it necessarily help Europe to achieve its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.
Last week, former German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer spoke at the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force’s event at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. While commenting on the challenge of repairing relations with the Muslim world that the next President will face, Fischer made this case for Turkey’s membership in the European Union.
I think that Europe has the strongest leverage in its hand – it’s Turkey. If Turkey were to be firmly bound to the West, it would be the key battle in the fight against Islamic radicalism and terrorism, because it would demonstrate that Islamic culture and tradition is not in contradiction with the rule of law, with the market economy, with the modern society…That Islam fits into the modern reality in the 21st century – hence, that state is Turkey. Secondly, look to the map…I’m talking only about security. Turkey is key to the European security and the security of the region.
Fischer’s assertion that Turkey’s membership in the European Union would allow Turkey to serve as a model for its Arab neighbors is speculative. Turkey has been modernizing its institutions since its founding in 1923 (and the Ottoman Empire began to look West decades before that). Arab countries have not followed a similar path during that period. It remains to be seen whether the increased role of religion in Turkish public life and its recently improved relations with its Arab neighbors will increase Turkey’s attractiveness as a model of the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and open markets.
On the security issue, Fischer is undoubtedly correct that Turkey’s geographic position and professional military make it an important ally for both the United States and Europe. Turkey’s contributions in both Georgia and Afghanistan are only the most recent indicators of Turkey’s strategic importance. It is unclear however, how EU membership would influence Turkey’s posture toward its Arab and Persian neighbors.
Turkey’s current role as a mediator between its NATO allies to the West and its Muslim neighbors to the East stems precisely from the fact that it is not too closely bound to the West.
For example, if Turkey were a member of the European Union, it would be impossible for Iran to invite Turkey to facilitate negotiations with the EU over its nuclear program. Instead, Turkey would (correctly) be viewed as a partial defender of European interests. The same holds true for Syria, for whom Turkey has recently brokered peace talks with Israel.
None of this is to say that Turkey’s membership in the EU is undesirable – that is a much more complicated question that involves balancing many costs and benefits. The point is that becoming a member of the EU would alter Turkey’s uniquely flexible position as a bridge between the EU and the Arab world, and may paradoxically make it more difficult for Turkey to help Europe achieve some of its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.