Sunday 23 October 2016

EU needs to be pragmatic on Turkey's membership bid

Brian Hayes

Published 29/12/2015 | 02:30

'The recent deal between Turkey and the EU represents hard-headed pragmatism, nothing more nothing less'. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
'The recent deal between Turkey and the EU represents hard-headed pragmatism, nothing more nothing less'. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Turkey claims it is a European country and has long-standing ambitions to be a member of the EU. Most of Europe does not agree. Whatever about the centuries of conflict between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, there remains deep suspicion within Europe about Turkey's ultimate path towards democracy. Deep-rooted religious and ethnic tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface of the Balkans and its region.

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Turkey is a major regional player, but its influence has at times been a major source of instability. The EU is suspicious of its intentions.

The shooting down by Turkey of a Russian jet fighter has further heightened tensions in an already highly volatile Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of "a stab in the back" and threatened serious consequences. Ironically, Putin and Recep Erdogan, the Turkish president, were close political allies for many years. Both, of course, are cut from the same political cloth; authoritarian, nationalistic, aggressive. Both use traditional religion to strengthen their support - Russian Orthodox in Putin's case and Islam in Erdogan's. A falling-out was inevitable once they took different sides in the Syrian civil war.

Turkey has been an enthusiastic supporter of regime change in Syria, while Putin is Assad's strongest supporter. However, Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and others in the Middle East, has been playing a very dangerous game.

Turkey's involvement in the Syrian civil war is irresponsible and reckless. It has allowed its country to be used as a transition zone for Jihadi fighters. It has failed to close its border with Syria and allowed Turkish businesses to trade openly with Isil, particularly in oil, which was, until recently, a major source of revenue for Isil. And, of course, Turkey has also used the conflict in Syria to attack Kurdish forces in Syria and continue a policy of oppression against its own, large Kurdish minority of about 12 million people.

Those who support and supply Isil have created a Frankenstein which now threatens the Middle East. Its apocalyptic ideology is spreading like a virus across the region and in many parts of North Africa. We have seen in Paris how Isil can bring its savagery to mainland Europe. Isil recruits disaffected young European citizens to their ranks and wages an ongoing war against the very values the EU was founded on.

Turkey's dangerous political game in Syria has, of course, backfired. Turkey is now subject to terrorist attacks from Isil. The conflict in Syria has caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek safety in Turkey. This summer, Turkish people-traffickers have been extremely active in providing logistical support for the flow of refugees into the Greek islands, many of which are only a few kilometres from the Turkish coast.

The recent deal between Turkey and the EU represents hard-headed pragmatism, nothing more nothing less. In a late attempt to stem the flow of refugees the EU has engaged in intense negotiations with Turkey.

Turkey has driven a hard bargain. It has obtained guarantees of €3bn from the EU. It has also been promised visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens one year after the deal. Accession talks on Turkey's membership of the EU are also to be upgraded. But people should not forget that these discussions have been ongoing since 1986, with already 14 chapters of accession formally agreed. But no one expects a deal on Turkey joining the EU anytime soon.

There are also reports that discussions are ongoing between the EU and Turkey which will result in the EU agreeing to take an additional 500,000 refugees form Turkish camps. How this will be achieved is not yet clear. EU discussions with Turkey have been driven by Germany to a great extent. Germany, of course, has long-standing relations with Turkey. Turkey has been a supplier of migrant labour to Germany for more than 50 years and there are now almost three million ethnic Turks living in Germany. With almost one million refugees arriving in Germany this year, authorities are desperately anxious to stop the flow.

It is in the interest of Europe that Turkey be a reliable partner for the EU. And, of course, Turkey is also a member of Nato - as are most members of the EU.

There is also a compelling need for political stability in Syria and a wider peace process in the Middle East. Syria is the location of a civil war, a religious war, an ethnic war, a proxy war between regional powers and other international powers. Turkey has also serious human rights issues and an ongoing and bitter dispute with its Kurdish minority. Turkey's political culture and value system are not readily compatible with Europe's. Of late, the Turkish economy has slowed and the progress towards full-blooded democracy has also stalled.

There are extremely difficult and complex issues on the borders of the EU. It is important that the EU and Turkey have close and stable relations. A politically stable and responsible Turkey is good for the EU and for the Middle East. But it cannot be at any price.

We should not take the latest agreement between Turkey and the EU as a sign of things to come, or as tacit support for Turkey's potential membership of the EU. I believe there is minimal support within the EU for that outcome.

Brian Hayes is Fine Gael MEP for Dublin

Irish Independent

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