The EU must now look south

What defines the Eastern Mediterranean as a region? Can it all be considered European? Why has its history been so turbulent? And when is it the business of the rest of the world to get involved? I shall shortly attend a conference in Greece where we shall consider such issues and more surrounding this vital part of the world. It will be an opportune occasion, given the EU’s impending decision in December on whether to open accession talks with Turkey. The Eastern Mediterranean is where three continents meet. This has given it a tremendous energy – religious, intellectual and entrepreneurial – an energy that has built empires and generated ideas and inventions. But it has also led to conflicts too bloody and numerous to contemplate. Some people believe that the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions will never coexist comfortably; and there are some who would love to banish such cultural reconciliation forever. But we must never be lulled into thinking that we can do nothing about it. On the contrary, Europe possesses the diplomatic and political tools – principally the tool of enlargement – to transform this region into a bastion of peace and stability. I sometimes think Europeans underestimate the tremendous power we have, because it is not a loud, military power but a soft, osmotic power that seeps into the surrounding regions and anchors them in our values: democracy, freedom, open markets and human rights. The question of Turkey’s European perspective is one of the most important issues on the geopolitical agenda. A positive decision in December would be good for the EU, good for the Eastern Mediterranean and good for Turkey. For the EU, the arguments center on increased regional security, prosperity and foreign policy credibility. For Turkey, it is about making permanent its Western orientation, with all the political, economic and social consequences that that entails. And what of the broader Eastern Mediterranean region? It means a pillar of stability and democracy abutting the Middle East. Imagine the pollination of values across an EU border with Iraq and Syria that would accompany trade, tourism and everyday people-to-people contacts. It would be a major contribution to long-term stability in the region. So there are strategic gains for us all; but the tactical gains for the EU resulting from a «yes» to Turkey in December are also considerable. A disappointed, and resigned, Turkey in December presents a less stable neighbor for the EU. Conversely, a Turkey encouraged in its accession path is a confident Turkey, willing to engage. This must surely bode well for any next steps on Cyprus, which needs a Turkey heading for EU membership, and one willing to facilitate a settlement. Successive Greek governments have displayed great vision toward their eastern neighbor; from the green shoots of rapprochement which sprouted in 1999, through to Prime Minister Erdogan’s notably positive visit to this country in May. What touches and impresses too is that this thaw was supported by the people, with the popular outpouring of mutual sympathy at the horrific earthquakes five years ago. Of course, Turkey has its duties to fulfill too. Like any other candidate country, it must meet the Copenhagen political criteria, including ensuring respect for democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities. And the road to accession will be long. I imagine that the negotiations themselves will take at least 10 years. This period will allow Turkey to do various things; for example, to demonstrate that its reforms are being implemented at all levels of society, and to show that while Islam is the main religion, the secular republican tradition of Ataturk is not under threat. Clearly, the question of Turkey’s relationship with the Republic of Cyprus must be resolved at some point too. And we must all continue to search for a comprehensive Cyprus settlement. In the meantime, any reduction of troop numbers on Cyprus would be welcome and would help build confidence on the island. So those of us in favor of Turkish membership must unite to make the case for Turkey to begin negotiations, and be ready to dismiss the arguments that certain anti-Turkish, anti-Islamic forces are making against Turkey – on the basis that the founding principle of our union was to overcome differences in culture, language and geography, through the spread of shared values and a common purpose. Since the end of the Cold War, the European Union has looked to its east and northeast. On May 1 this year, we saw the consummation of that process with the accession of 10 new members. Now it is time for us to turn south, and embrace the strategic opportunity Turkey’s accession offers us all. (1) Denis MacShane is Britain’s minister for Europe.