A new power balance

Turkey’s stubborn refusal to sign the so-called Ankara protocol to extend a customs union to the European Union’s 10 newcomers, which would grant Cypriot ships and airplanes access its ports and airports, is turning out to be the biggest obstacle on the neighboring country’s path to membership of the bloc. Turkey’s EU troubles have brought smiles to those who have been reluctant to see the predominantly Muslim nation enter the union because of their own domestic political concerns. The recent statements made by Erkki Tuomioja, the foreign minister of current EU president Finland, and by the bloc’s expansion commissioner Olli Rehn leave little doubt about Europe’s intentions. The officials gave a clear warning that a refusal by Ankara to meet the commitments it has made to the bloc could lead to a suspension of the negotiations. Turkey has for decades been treated as a special case by the West because of its strategic position, powerful military and vast market, which has attracted commercial interests from more developed states. The result was that the traditional establishment in Ankara got used to an a la carte type of treatment. The EU project is based on a set of laws and regulations. But interpretations of the EU rulebook tend to be rather eclectic and flexible, especially in cases where there is no political resistance from any member state or, more usually, where the more powerful states have agreed to push a specific agenda for political reasons. Furthermore, European decision-making reflects the balance of power of the time and agreements can be subject to revision in subsequent European Council meetings, as has often happened in the past. Back in December 2004, when most European governments were led by champions of Turkey’s European ambitions such as Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Jacques Chirac in France, the EU gave the green light to Ankara for starting membership negotiations despite Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus and its threat of war (casus belli) should Greece exercise its lawful right to expand its territorial waters to 12 miles. Though this was a huge violation of legal and political principles, Cyprus and Greece still gave the go-ahead. That was then. Now Blair’s credibility in Britain has sunk to a low point and his image on the EU level is tarnished; Schroeder has retired from German politics and has dedicated himself to the promotion of Russian energy to the West; Berlusconi’s gags have been reduced to his home audience as he is no longer prime minister; and, finally, the rejection of the EU’s constitutional treaty has turned Chirac into one of the most articulate detractors of Turkey’s European aspirations. The shift of the power balance in many continental governments has put stronger focus on implementation of the protocol, taking Ankara hostage in its obligations toward Brussels and Nicosia. It was the worst possible development for the traditional establishment in Ankara. At the same time, the tug-of-war between the Islamic-leaning Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the military establishment, and the precipitous decline of the Turkish economy have invited a great deal of concern over what looked like a promising partner only a few years back. Some observers, particularly in Athens, are worried that the changing mood will cause a Turkish backlash that produces a series of negative consequences. However there is no such thing as certainty in politics. After the fall of the communist system, the European balance of power has never stopped shifting. This will probably happen within Turkey as well as within the EU, but it’s too early to predict the future shape of any of them. For the time being, Turkey appears undaunted by the behavior of European states; in fact it expects the EU to comply with its own reading of the obligations. Meanwhile, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer recently made a visit to Russia, reinforcing Ankara’s already close relationship with Moscow cultivated over the past few years. The international system, especially on a European level, is clearly entering a new era characterized by a different balance of power.