British Prime Minister David Cameron has completed a visit to Turkey with a passionate defense of Ankara’s aspiration to join the European Union. The charismatic young leader, who also completed a successful Prime Ministerial visit to Washington this month, has joined leading figures, such as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in accusing Brussels of not playing fair with Turkey. They’re right. When negotiations with Ankara began, Brussels set out 35 chapters of EU law for Ankara to discharge before a final vote on accession can be taken, but France, Greece, and Cyprus have repeatedly blocked the opening of many of these chapters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been at the forefront of opposing full Turkish membership in the EU, proposing instead a privileged partnership between Ankara and Brussels. Turkish leaders have dismissed this proposal as insulting, because Turkey already enjoys a privileged relationship with the EU. There is a pervasive sense in Ankara that the EU is negotiating in bad faith. The Turkish government has undertaken significant reforms to align itself more closely with law, but the feeling that Brussels may not be serious about Turkey’s eventual accession has led to disenchantment with the EU. Favorable polling toward the EU currently stands at just 22 percent.
But Brussels cannot be entirely to blame. On critical issues, especially on energy and the Middle East, Turkey currently stands at odds with the United States and Europe. Ankara’s vote against sanctioning Iran at the U.N. last month sent shock-waves through Turkey’s traditional allies, especially Israel and the U.S. Turkish foreign policy has displayed elements of creeping Islamization as a new, more religiously observant political and social elite is increasingly challenging the traditional, secularist Kemalist elite’s dominance of Turkish political life. Replacing Turkey’s long-held pro-NATO and pro-U.S. policies, Ankara is slowly fashioning a closer relationship with Russia and the Middle East.
The EU hasn’t done right by Turkey, and Cameron is right to want an increased trade relationship with Ankara. Turkish membership of the EU’s Customs Union—where it enjoys preferential access to EU markets and free trade in certain products—really makes sense only if accession to the alliance is imminent. Therefore, the EU should adopt a full and comprehensive free trade agreement with Turkey to replace the customs union agreement as part of a broader Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area (EMFTA). Enhancing trade among Turkey, the EU, and the other members of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership would invariably bring greater prosperity and regional stability.
For its part, the United States should also seek to revitalize the strategic relationship between Washington and Turkey, warning the Turkish government that support for the Iranian nuclear program and continuing confrontation with Israel undermines the foundations of U.S.–Turkish relations and jeopardizes military and intelligence cooperation. The Obama Administration should mediate the repair of ties between Ankara and Jerusalem while encouraging Turkey to play a significant role in conflict resolution in its neighborhood, especially the Caucasus. Europe and the U.S. should also expand energy cooperation with Turkey, especially on the Nabucco, Turkmenistan–Azerbaijani, and Iraq–Turkey gas pipelines, excluding Iranian oil and gas exports.
On its current trajectory, Turkey’s traditional strategic relationship with the West is likely to be replaced with a looser affiliation as Turkey enters into a closer alignment with Iran and other Middle Eastern powers hostile to U.S. leadership. The United States and NATO should not stand idly by watching this happen. The U.S. in concert with its European allies needs to address the serious differences that are emerging and encourage Turkey to be a strong regional partner, not a competitor.