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Turkey as a Transatlantic Olive Branch?

Is Turkey the key to patching up U.S.-German relations?

November 6, 2002

Is Turkey the key to patching up U.S.-German relations?

The United States has made it clear that it would very much like the Schröder government to help the Turks — by persuading the rest of the EU to agree to a conditional date for the start of Turkey's accession negotiations.

And that is precisely where three interesting events, which took place last Tuesday, enter into the equation. In a phone call to Turkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, mainly covering Iraq, Bush made a point of stressing his support for Turkey's bid to join the EU.

The same day, Turkey's foreign minister was in Berlin, being assured by his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, that Germany "would do its utmost" to support Turkey's EU membership.

And Chancellor Schröder told Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, current president of the EU Council, that Germany favored Turkey getting a date at the December summit, where Rasmussen will be host.

This is not the first time that the White House pressured EU countries on behalf of Turkey. The country is justifiably seen in Washington as a loyal and valued NATO ally.

Furthermore, it is in a strategic location that needs to be locked into stable Western institutions. U.S. interventions on behalf of Turkey go back some years.

For example, during the 1998 EU summit in Cardiff, U.S. President Bill Clinton woke up the Greek prime minister with a phone call to urge him to lift a veto on Turkish negotiations.

During the EU's Helsinki summit in December of 1999, Mr. Clinton cajoled them into formally accepting Turkey as a candidate for membership — the first crucial step of what can be a very, very long process. (Turkey first applied to join the EU back in 1965.)

Now that it has candidate status, in theory nothing can stop Turkey's eventual membership. All that Turkey has to do is to meet the Copenhagen criteria — that is, requirements on human rights and democracy — and subsequently completes the accession procedure.

This is no small feat. It involves overhauling the Turkish state bureaucracy to meet the requirements of the acquis communautaire, the EU's 80,000-page administrative rulebook.

In fact, the eurocrats of Brussels can spin this out for a very long time. They will be tempted to do so, because Turkey is mainly Muslim. And even more tantalizingly, its birth-rate will probably make it the most populous country in the EU by 2010.

On that basis, it could thus claim the largest share of seats in the EU parliament, while also being the poorest country. This will not only impose strains on the EU budget.

It will also fundamentally change the character of what has hitherto been a white, prosperous and Christian club. The EU's nervousness at the implications of Turkish membership is understandable, but looks like it is doomed. The EU's first line of defense, the Copenhagen criteria, is crumbling fast.

Turkey has put a moratorium on the death penalty, banned torture and overhauled its judicial regime. Better yet, it appears genuinely to be making a strong effort to install democratic institutions.

The EU's second line of defense, the traditional Greek-Turkish hostility, is also crumbling. This is largely thanks to the far-sighted Greek foreign minister George Papandreou, who has emerged as Turkey's staunchest champion in Europe.

The third line of defense, German nervousness at bringing in a country that already provides the bulk of Germany's immigrants, is visibly bending under U.S. pressure.

For obvious reasons, Chancellor Schröder is finding the U.S. pressure on Turkey's behalf much harder to resist. After all, he has to try to restore relations with the White House after those offensive remarks during his re-election campaign.

And he is enough of a political realist to understand that — with the United States needing Turkish backing for its planned assault on Iraq — the pressure from the Bush team is not going to subside anytime soon.

What are we left with? Clearly a rather inspiring — and yes, constructive — scenario. If it took this crisis in German-U.S. relations to help Turkey over the hump in the EU, the smitten porcelain between Washington and Berlin will have been well worth it. In fact, it might one day be viewed as having magically converted itself into sterling silver.

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