Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Cameron's Turkey Talk

David Cameron has been in Ankara today, talking up the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union. Perhaps he genuinely believes that both Turkey and the EU would benefit from such a development. But, let's be honest, it's not going to happen. Thank goodness.

The case against Turkey's membership of the European Union can be stated very simply. It is not, and for most of the last millennium has not been, a European country. Geographically, culturally, politically, economically and emotionally it is part of western Asia. It does contain a major European city - Istanbul, once Constantinople - and its history has long been entwined with that of Europe. It has a western-oriented middle-class, secular institutions and usually manages to produce a decent tune for the Eurovision Song Contest - at least, in comparison with the UK's dismal efforts. But Istanbul is not Turkey, and one evening in May cannot overcome the central fact that Turkey is too big, too different and in many respects too important to be absorbed into any recognisable EU.

If the EU has, over the past few decades, come to resemble the old lady in the nursery rhyme, contriving to stuff herself with a succession of ever more improbable animals, Turkey with its 75 million citizens (and, as Cameron pointed out, extremely high birth rate) would be the horse.

Furthermore, it is the settled will of probably a majority of European governments (whether or not they are prepared to say so publicly) that Turkey should never join. A pretence of memberships talks continues, and has continued for many years - one that would be a cruel deception if the Turks actually took it seriously, which they don't. For it is no more in Turkey's interests to join the EU than it is in the interests of most EU nations for Turkey to join them.

There are only two countries that still take the prospect of Turkey's accession to the EU seriously. One is the United States of America, which has a strategic interest in seeing some sort of European-Turkish linkage, whether or not the Turks or the Europeans want or need such a thing, and seems to regard the EU as somehow equivalent to Nafta. At any rate, it's hard to imagine the US inviting Mexico to join the union, or opening its borders to uncontrolled Mexican immigration and exposing its citizens to summary extradition on the orders of Mexican magistrates, which is probably the closest equivalent to allowing Turkey to join the European Union. But then the Americans have always had a clear-sighted attachment to their national interest. The other, less explicably, is Britain.

David Cameron used the opportunity of his visit to Turkey to rehearse the ancient British obsession with bringing Turkey into the concert of Europe. I say ancient. Cameron's speech referred to Elizabethan ambassadors bringing gifts to the Sublime Porte - no doubt he will repeat the sentiment when he arrives in Delhi - but the policy really dates to the 19th century when Britain regularly went to the aid of an ailing Ottoman Empire in its many struggles with Russia and with nationalist movements within its own borders. Diplomatic memories are long. More recently, British Eurosceptics (and perhaps Foreign Office diplomats) have fondly imagined that an EU containing Turkey would perforce be a much looser arrangement, more closely resembling Nafta than the current arrangement. A Europe more to Britain's liking. But if that were true (and EU expansion has tended to go hand-in-hand with more, not less, integration) that would in itself be another reason why significant EU players would block it.

What was truly bizarre about Cameron's speech - he is, after all, a practical man - was its almost Blairite moral tone, his apparent conviction that to keep Turkey outside the EU would represent some sort of betrayal - as well as being evidence of deep-seated Islamophobia. Cameron began his plea for Turkish accession by quoting Charles de Gaulle's famous Non to Britain's original application to join the European Economic Community:


Here is a country which is not European…its history, its geography, its economy, its agriculture and the character of its people – admirable people though they are – all point in a different direction…This is a country which…cannot, despite what it claims and perhaps even believes, be a full member.


I tend to the view that De Gaulle was right. Certainly, Britain's membership of the EU has been characterised by forty years of mutual suspicion, disharmony and ill-will. Believers in the dream of a united Europe have often found their project frustrated (or at least held up) by London, while integration has often worked against the interests of British people - from the loss of territorial fishing waters to the sometimes arbitrary operation of the European Arrest Warrant. Yet for all the cultural differences, differences of history and outlook, rightly pinpointed by the French general, the fact remains that the UK is in most respects a mainstream west European democracy. Not so Turkey. If Europe has struggled to absorb Britain, how much greater would be the difficulty in taking on Turkey.

Cameron, however, seemed to be channelling Kevin the Teenager. "We know what it's like to be shut out of the club," he commiserates with his hosts. So Unfair!

When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a NATO ally and what Turkey is doing today in Afghanistan alongside our European allies it makes me angry that your progress towards EU Membership can be frustrated in the way it has been. My view is clear. I believe it’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.


Utterly bizarre. Canada and (non-Nato) Australia are also part of the Nato coalition engaged in the doomed, pointless and increasingly costly mess that is Afghanistan, of course, but no-one is suggesting that they be offered membership of the EU. Geography aside, Australia would, in fact, be a much more natural addition to the European Union than Turkey - or, for that matter, most of the former Soviet republics who are also regularly touted as possible members. Not that the Ozzies, if they had any sense, would want to join. (On the other hand Australia, like Turkey and Israel, should certainly be allowed to enter the Eurovision Song Contest.)

But in any case Cameron's argument is irrelevant. The EU is part political union, part trading block, part idea. It's not a reward for good behaviour. And Turkey has its own interests in Afghanistan - far greater interests, indeed, than Britain, let alone any other EU member state, has in the region. It is closer geographically, it shares its religion and much of its culture with Afghanistan, Turkic languages are spoken there. Afghanistan is Turkey's backyard. To suggest that the Turks are involved in the conflict purely to do Western countries a favour is pretty strange. At a pinch, I suppose, they might want to keep on good terms with the Americans. But the relevance of the conflict to Turkey's EU aspirations - such as they are - is effectively zero.

I tend to assume that David Cameron is clear-headed enough to be aware of geopolitical realities, even if he feels himself unable to speak plainly. He must know that Turkish membership of the EU, on terms acceptable both to most EU nations and to Turkey itself, is impossible. It's not going to happen, because it is in no-one's interests for it to do so. At least, it is neither in Turkey's nor the EU's interests.

Yet Turkish membership of the EU is something that he professes to "feel very passionately about", which is odd. Cameron claims that opposition to Turkish membership can be attributed to three P's - protectionism, polarisation (the view that East is East and West is West) and prejudice - in other words, Islamophobia. But it is not necessary to bring Turkey within the EU to achieve free trade, or to have good relations across the Bosphorus. As for the third P, I assume Dave's thinking of the likes of Geert Wilders when he condemns:

Those who wilfully misunderstand Islam. They see no difference between real Islam and the distorted version of the extremists. They think the problem is Islam itself. And they think the values of Islam can just never be compatible with the values of other religions, societies, or cultures.


Some people do think that, of course. Many misunderstanders of Islam, indeed, happen to be Muslims - not just terrorists, radical Islamists and the Taliban, but the leaderships of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Others merely notice that when Islam comes to political power women and religious minorities tend to suffer. One of Tony Blair's most striking peculiarities was his obsession with lecturing the world on how it misunderstood "the real" Islam. I'm not greatly reassured to find David Cameron embracing it - though perhaps he's simply flattering his audience.

The Turkish experiment in moderate Islamic leadership remains unfinished - in particular, it's unclear how different the Erdogan government would look if it were not in a state of permanent conflict with the secular military establishment - but the leadership's rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric and its increasing closeness to the vile Ahmadinejad regime do not bode well.

It's not entirely absurd to put opposition to Turkish membership down to the belief at some level that the EU is a Christian club, or at least a culturally-defined one. That, though, is a happy coincidence, for in truth Islam is the smallest obstacle in the way of Turkey's accession. Its size, relative poverty, East-facing orientation and inherent instability all make it a most dangerous bedfellow.

Even if the AKP were no more Islamist than Angela Merkel's party is Christian, that would not make Turkey a plausible EU candidate. The country has a dismal human rights record, refuses to acknowledge its historic faults (principally, of course, the Armenian genocide) - indeed, threatens any Turk who does draw attention to the crime with imprisonment for "anti-Turkish activities", a kind of secular blasphemy. There's the Kurdish problem. Until recently, as Cameron noted in his speech, even the Kurdish language was banned. Certainly, the human rights situation has improved recently (if less than Cameron flattered his audience that it has) but Turkey remains in many respects an authoritarian country, at least compared with most of Europe, and there's little prospect of the EU imposing more radical change which most Turkish people simply do not want.

It is not the compatibility of Islamic values with those of other religions that is the problem here, but the basic compatibility of Turkey with the EU. It is just too big, too economically divergent, too militaristic, too complex, too much sui generis, to fit comfortably into the EU straightjacket. Russia, a majority Christian country, is likewise and for similar reasons almost certain never to join the EU. Like Russia, Turkey is its own civilisation, with its own perspective, its own historic destiny, its own needs. Neither Turkey nor the EU have anything much to gain from a forced, or even an arranged, marriage.