Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Post-Helsinki: Turkey, Greece and the European Union

Post-Helsinki: Turkey, Greece and the European Union

Philip H. Gordon, Director, the Center on the United
States and France, and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

The European Union's December 1999 decision to accord
Turkey the status of official "candidate" was a historic
turning point that will have long-term benefits for the
entire eastern Mediterranean region.

The Helsinki outcome reinforces Turkey's European
orientation; provides a strong incentive for Ankara to
pursue its ongoing economic, political, and human rights
reform; bolsters Greece-Turkey relations; and eliminates
much of the deep resentment that many Turks felt toward
the EU following the December 1997 Luxembourg summit's
rejection of Turkey's candidacy.

The EU decision at Helsinki was the product of a number
of different factors. These included the 1998 election
of a Social Democratic government in Germany, replacing
the Christian Democratic regime that wanted to keep
Turkey at arm's length; the Kosovo conflict, which
demonstrated Turkey's role in European security and its
ability to cooperate with Greece; American pressure,
which was a persistent thorn in Europeans' side until
removed at Helsinki; and the policies of the Turkish
government led by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, elected
in April 1999, which had already begun to implement a
range of important reforms.

No factor, however, was more important than the new
approach taken by the Greek government, spearheaded by
Foreign Minister George Papandreou. Papandreou's new
approach—based on the realization that a Europeanizing
Turkey was in Greece's own national interest—has not
only helped to improve Turkey's relationship with the
EU, but it has already begun to bring about improvements
in Greece-Turkey relations that would have seemed
impossible only a few years ago.

Some have argued that the EU's Helsinki decision was a
mistake that will only encourage Turkey to maintain
illusions about an EU membership that it will never, in
fact, attain. According to this logic, the EU should
have been frank with Turkey and made it clear that the
bloc will never include a large Muslim country, most of
whose territory lies beyond what is traditionally
considered to be Europe.

It will be many years before Turkey is ready for actual
accession. But refusing it even the prospect of eventual
membership—no matter how the country evolves in the
coming years—would have been a great mistake. Not only
would such a decision have sent Turkey-EU and
Turkey-Greece relations into a new tailspin, but it also
would have taken away one of Turkey's most powerful
incentives to pursue the types of policies and reforms
that Europeans claim to want to see.

Europe's postwar history is full of examples of
countries undertaking major reforms in the name of
Europe that they would not otherwise have
undertaken—Greece's recent fiscal discipline as a path
to joining Europe's Economic and Monetary Union is a
relevant example—and there is no reason this external
stimulus will not affect Turkey as well.

Indeed, evidence of this effect is already becoming
apparent. Since Helsinki, Turkish leaders have openly
discussed the possibility of allowing Kurdish-language
broadcasts and education, a longstanding European
demand; postponed implementation of the death sentence
of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan
in order to allow an appeal to be considered by the
European Court of Human Rights; talked about abolishing
the death penalty altogether; encouraged the
continuation of the first Cyprus talks to be held for
more than two years; made real efforts to improve their
human rights record; and moved forward with the
far-reaching economic reform program launched last

Not all of these things can be attributed to Turkey's
desire to join the EU, but there is no doubt that the
positive atmosphere at Helsinki and renewed hope for
eventual membership has inspired Turkey to stick to this

Even more important has been the great improvement in
Greece-Turkey relations that certainly would not be
continuing had Greece and its fellow EU members made a
different choice at Helsinki. Indeed, the evolution of
Greece-Turkey relations over the past few months has
been remarkable, including the first visit by a Greek
foreign minister, Papandreou, to Turkey in 38 years;
bilateral agreements on trade and investment, organized
crime, illegal immigration, tourism, and the
environment; and the possibility that Greek and Turkish
forces will conduct exercises together in Greek
territory as part of NATO's Dynamic Mix military

Many of the bilateral agreements are substantively
significant, not least because of the great potential
for an increase in Greek-Turkish trade from its
currently low level of less than $1 billion per year.
But even more important is their demonstration of the
two countries' common interests. As Hikmet Cetin, a
former Turkish foreign minister has put it, "People in
Turkey, Greece and Cyprus now see that the two
governments can deal with each other in a positive way."

None of this is to say that Turkey's candidacy status
has somehow resolved all of Turkey's or the region's
problems, or that positive Turkey-EU relations are now
guaranteed. Turkey has a lot of hard work to do—on human
rights, on economic development, in resolving problems
with Greece, and in reducing the military's role in
government—before it will be in a position to meet the
EU's tough membership conditions.

In this sense, Prime Minister Ecevit's talk after
Helsinki of possibly joining the European Union in 2004
seems excessively optimistic. Turkish leaders, with
encouragement from the EU and the United States, would
do well to start managing expectations so that another
disappointment does not set Turkey-EU relations back
again. Hopefully, Turkey's December decision to, in
effect, declare victory and accept the EU's offer of
candidacy, despite what might have been seen as
conditions attached to it on Cyprus and the Aegean, was
a sign that Turkey is realistic about what must happen
before it can actually join the EU.

Where external relations are concerned, the greatest
obstacles to continued Turkey-EU rapprochement remain
Cyprus and the Aegean. Anyone who has followed these
issues over the years knows how difficult they will be
to resolve. But they should also know that, as long as
Turkey feels ostracized by Europe and has a hostile
relationship with Greece, these problems will never be
resolved, and there will remain an unhealthy gap between
Turkey and Europe.

Turkey is a big, proud country with a growing economy,
and it has always been unlikely to compromise on these
issues through outside pressure alone. A far better
approach is one that allows Turks and Greeks to see
their overwhelming common interest in cooperating on a
wide range of problems. Once this new attitude prevails
among Turks, Greeks and Europeans, even the hardest
bilateral problems will come to be seen in a new light,
and solutions may finally become possible.

That new mood, and the incentive that possible EU
membership provides for Turkey to make difficult
domestic changes, offer the possibility of dramatically
transforming Turkey-EU relations, and, with them, the
prospects for peace and prosperity in the entire eastern
Mediterranean region.

The Strategic Regional Report, February 2000

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