Prepared for the CEPS/IISS European Security Forum, Brussels, 12 May 2003

Turkey's Strategic Future

By Natalie Tocci

Anchoring Turkey to Europe: the foreign policy challenges ahead

Since the foundation of the Kemalist Republic, Turkey sought to associate itself with the West, i.e., with both Europe and the United States. Although with the end of the Cold War Turkey's ties with the Caucasus and Central Asia were strengthened, the dominant position in Ankara never advocated a turnaround in Turkey's foreign policy orientation. On the contrary, Turkey presented its strategic importance to the West precisely in view of its bridging role to the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Turkey's European orientation remained a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Since 1987, this took the form of aspiring to become a full member of the EC/EU. Since December 1999, its prospects of full membership, while remaining in an uncertain and distant future, were accepted by the European Council. Yet, scratching beneath the surface, there is not yet a consensus either in Turkey or in the Union concerning the desirability of a fully European Turkey and the necessary transformation of the country that this would entail. As such, while Turkey's European orientation is likely to persist, the extent of its depth and the ensuing levels of integration in the EU remain unclear. Developments in Turkey, in Europe and the wider international system will determine the evolution of EU-Turkey relations. At this particular juncture, developments in Cyprus and Iraq are critically affecting the relationship.

As put by several Turkish analysts, 'there are many Ankaras'. The multi-faceted nature of the Turkish foreign policy establishment became particularly evident in the aftermath of the December 1999 Helsinki European Council. Turkey's candidacy meant that it was no longer sufficient to pay lip service to the goal of membership. If Ankara was serious in its aspirations to join the Union, it had to demonstrate that it was equally committed to the Copenhagen criteria. As European demands for reform rose, the concerns and resistance against change in Ankara emerged more clearly.

Effective opposition to EU membership, or rather to the reform necessary to attain it, existed in most groups within the Turkish political system. Those resisting change included circles in the nationalist right and in the nationalist left, in both the civilian and the military establishments. Some right wing nationalists preferred to establish closer links to Turkic Eurasia than to see Turkey's full integration with Western Europe. Traditional Kemalists objected to the erosion of sovereignty within the EU. Others opposed the comprehensive internal reforms demanded by Brussels, and were more inclined to pursue Turkey's Western orientation through closer ties with the US.

Often spurred by the US, conservative elements within the Turkish establishment argued that Turkey should be admitted to the Union on laxer conditions given its strategic importance. For example, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli argued that 'we need to have a just and honourable relationship with the EU. We strongly oppose the notion that we should fulfil every demand of the EU to become a member or we have to enter the EU at any cost'.[1] Turkish national pride was used as a major weapon, as Turkish euro-sceptics accused euro-philes of displaying a 'lack of confidence in the nation, the Republic, the institutions, ... everything called Turkish'.[2] Turkey's alternatives to Europe were also cited. On 6th March 2002, General Tuncer Kilinç, MGK Secretary General, stated that given EU demands, Turkey should start looking for alternative allies such as Russia and Iran.

The AKP's landslide victory at the 3rd November elections tilted the balance within the party political system in favour of the pro-European reformists. In its rhetoric, the AKP's commitment to EU membership as well as the reform path necessary to attain it is crucial. The AKP refuses to define itself as a religious party but rather calls for greater religious freedoms. In order to carry a consistent political message it advocates personal freedoms in other spheres as well, including cultural and linguistic freedoms. It's support for EU membership is not only viewed as an end to be attained through painful reforms. In the AKP's rhetoric, the EU anchor is portrayed also a means to attain the objectives of reform, which are as important as membership itself. But while the balance within the party political spectrum tilted in favour of the reformists (the only opposition party, Deniz Baykal's CHP also declares itself in strong support of reforms and EU membership), this is not necessarily the case within the wider establishment, which includes, the civilian administration, the Presidency, the intelligence community and the influential military.

Pro-European reformers in Turkey are weakened internally by the lack of credibility of EU policies towards Turkey. EU actors, particularly those who are conservative/Christian Democratic leaning, frequently indicated their reluctance to accept Turkey as a full member irrespective of its compliance with the Copenhagen criteria. Religion, geography, demography, economic development as well as the legitimate concerns over democracy and human rights were cited as the impeding factors to Turkey's EU membership. One of the most recent expressions of European exclusionism were the comments by Convention President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the run-up to the 2002 Copenhagen European Council, when he stated that Turkey had a 'different culture, a different approach, a different way of life....its capital is not in Europe, 95% of its population lives outside Europe, it is not a European my opinion it would be the end of the EU'.[3]

In several instances in the recent history of EU-Turkey relations, 'anti-Turks' in Europe and 'anti-Europeans' in Turkey reinforced each other in a vicious circle of antagonism and lack of reform in Turkey together with European distancing from Turkey. On the one hand, the more sceptical were the member states regarding Turkey's future in Europe, and thus the less forthcoming were EU policies towards Turkey, and the greater the credibility of Turkish nationalists and conservatives, who claimed that Turkey would never be admitted to the Union and thus that it should be cautious in pursuing domestic reforms and foreign policy re-conceptualisations. In other words, the greater was Turkey's mistrust of Europe, and the slower was its own process of Europeanisation. On the other hand, as and when hardliners in Ankara gained the upper hand in the determination of domestic and foreign policy, EU actors became less forthcoming in its decisions concerning Turkey.

Up until December 2002, a critical example of Turkish mistrust of European countries was the dispute over Turkey's participation in ESDP. Turkey's veto threat over ESDP's use of NATO assets and capabilities was not simply driven by what the civilian-military establishment deemed as European broken promises. These simply served to create the legal context through which Turkey articulated its claims. What lay behind these claims was Turkey's fundamental mistrust of the Union, and its strong preference for NATO in which it was a full member. Turkey did not trust an independent European involvement in crisis areas, many of which are likely to be around Turkey. In particular Turkey feared a European defence involvement in Cyprus. Indeed, the final decision taken in December 2002 in Copenhagen excluded Cyprus (and Malta), as countries that were not participating in NATO's Partnership for Peace, from locations of possible ESDP operations.

On other occasions the vicious circle was broken, opening the way to virtuous interactions. The 3rd August 2002 events, in which the Turkish parliament, despite acute domestic political turmoil, succeeded in passing fundamental constitutional reforms, added credibility to Turkey's requests for a date to launch accession negotiations. Without the reforms, the European Council's decisions in Copenhagen in December 2002 would have been far less forthcoming.

In recent months, EU-Turkey relations have been critically affected both by the Iraq crisis and by the Cyprus impasse. In February 2003, the Turkish parliament rejected the government's proposed motion to allow 62,000 US troops to be deployed in Turkey for a second front attack against Iraq. After weeks of uncertainty, the American troops were re-routed to Kuwait. The rejection led to a temporary setback in US-Turkey relations, as well as new tensions on the EU-Turkey agenda. Many criticised the government for its inexperience in handling the situation. The government's indecisiveness and its failure to invest sufficient effort to ensure an approval of the motion, could have potentially caused severe political and economic losses.

By rejecting the motion, Turkey lost the $6bn war compensation package and $24bn in cheap long-term loans proposed by the US, there where Turkish policy-makers recalled the considerable economic costs from the 1991 Gulf War. Most critically, the incident plunged US-Turkey relations to their lowest ebb since the 1974 arm embargo on Turkey. In the aftermath of the rejection of the motion, tensions rose as the US administration strongly warned the Turkish establishment not to intervene in northern Iraq independently of American command. EU member states also cautioned Turkey not to intervene in northern Iraq. Several analysts also warned that the set-back US-Turkey relations within a wider context of a widening transatlantic rift could harm Turkey's EU bid by reducing American support for Turkey's accession process.

However, ensuing events gave rise to greater optimism. In the context of the Iraq crisis, the Turkish government strengthened its relations with the Arab world and Iran, without straining its relations with Israel or hinting at a reversal in its western orientation. Indeed, the AKP government mishandled the passing of the motion. However, the new and inexperienced government did so under extremely complex circumstances, due to the widespread public opposition to the war, the ambivalence of the military, and the uncertainty concerning whether a second UNSC resolution mandating war would have been passed. With the start of the war, to date, Turkey has refrained from sending additional troops in northern Iraq that could trigger clashes with Iraqi Kurdish forces. Turkey's conduct since the beginning of the war allowed for an improvement in its relations with the US. Most critically it added a positive impetus to EU-Turkey relations, as evidenced by the recent visit of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin to Ankara. The fact that, despite mistakes, the Turkish government took an independent and democratic decision concerning the war, while at the same time showing restraint in northern Iraq, sent positive signals particularly in those Western European countries that have been historically sceptical of Turkey's EU membership and were also opposed to the war in Iraq.

Yet perhaps an even more fundamental challenge in EU-Turkey relations concerns Cyprus, particularly in view of the forthcoming accession of the island. Due to the obstacles posed in Turkey's European path by the accession of a divided island, there has been an essential overlap between hardliners on the Cyprus conflict and the most nationalist and euro-sceptic forces in Turkey. To the most conservative forces within the Turkish establishment, the EU accession process is viewed as a threat to Turkey's Cyprus policy. Furthermore, an intransigent position on Cyprus added another obstacle in Turkey's EU path, and thus dampened the momentum in favour of what some viewed as threatening domestic reforms.

At the same time, the lack of a credible EU policy towards Turkey strengthened the arguments of nationalist and euro-sceptic forces in Ankara and Lefkosa that argued against an early settlement within the EU. Moderates and reformists in Turkey accepted that because of Turkey's own shortcomings, Cyprus' EU membership would occur prior to Turkey's. However, they could not accept that because of allegedly unchangeable features of the Turkish state and society, Cyprus would mark the borders of the united Europe, keeping Cyprus and Turkey on opposite sides of the European divide. So long as Turkey's fundamental scepticism of European intentions persisted, a settlement in Cyprus would be viewed by Ankara as 'losing Cyprus' rather than sealing a win-win agreement.

In the run up to the Copenhagen Council, the new AKP government displayed a fundamental shift from earlier administrations concerning Cyprus. It both declared openly that it did not regard a continuation of the status quo as a solution, and it appeared willing to recognise the link between EU-Turkey relations and a Cyprus settlement. In the run up to Copenhagen the government effectively argued that if the European Council gave Turkey an early and firm date to begin accession negotiations, the government would support a Cyprus settlement on the basis of the comprehensive Annan Plan'.

Judging by events, the Copenhagen offer was insufficient to induce Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots to sign an agreement on the 13 December 2002 and thereafter. This ultimate failure was not only caused by miscalculated Turkish bargaining tactics, but was fundamentally linked to Turkey's mistrust of Europe. Whether a deal would have been reached if Turkey had received an earlier and firmer 'date', or if EU-15 had formulated a more resolute and coherent policy towards Turkey before the European Council will remain unknown. But what was clear was that the Turkish government considered these conditions as the minimum assurance to hedge against this prevailing mistrust. Pressure alone would be insufficient to clinch an agreement.

After the Copenhagen Council trends continued to oscillate as the product of an ongoing battle between elements pushing for or against a settlement. Different positions and logics were continuously aired. Those sceptical of Turkey's future in Europe, persisted in their effective opposition to Cyprus's EU membership, and consequently their opposition to the UN Plan. Those in favour of Turkey's EU membership, but unsatisfied with the Copenhagen decision, proposed a postponement of a settlement until Turkey's EU prospects became clearer. Other pro-Europeans instead pushed for an early settlement based on the UN Plan, as they appreciated the difficulty of reaching an agreement following Cyprus' EU membership and understood that in future the international burden would be placed predominantly on Turkey's shoulders. The most evident manifestation of this flux of ideas was the effective rift between the AKP government and the Turkish Cypriot leadership.

With the failure of The Hague negotiations, for which the Turkish Cypriots were primarily blamed, the conservatives in Turkey and northern Cyprus appeared to win the day. However, while The Hague meeting temporarily sealed the fate of the 'Annan Plan', it did not entail the end of the debate in Turkey. The Cyprus challenge remains on the table, and will have to be tackled if Turkey is set to progress along its path to the Union. There are strong reasons for Turkey to pursue a settlement prior to the effective accession of Cyprus in May 2004. The scope to do so exists, as evidenced by the recent opening of the border point and the ensuing huge flux of people crossing the frontier. Politically, the opportunity for change could emerge with the December 2003 parliamentary elections in northern Cyprus. The extent to which this opportunity will be seized will depend on the extent to which, by the end of the year, the Turkish establishment will have reached a consensus concerning an early settlement on the island, a consensus that in March 2003 had not yet been reached.

The 'battle' to reach this consensus, is of the essence, because it stretches way beyond Cyprus, and deals with the nature of the Turkish nation-state and its strategic future. In the coming months and years head decisions taken in both Brussels and Ankara are set to determine the extent to which Turkey's historic European orientation will translate in its slow yet steady progress to full EU membership.

[1] Devlet Bahceli quoted in 'Bahceli toughens on EU and its domestic supporters' Turkish Daily News 04/03/02.

[2] Gunduz Aktan, 'New Consensus' Turkish Daily News 04/03/02.

[3] 'Giscard remarks cause uproar in Ankara, Brussels', Turkish Daily News 11/11/02.