EU’s soft corner for Gul

September 2, 2007 - 0:0

BRUSSELS (DAWN) -- Turkey’s new president Abdullah Gul may still face hostility from the country’s staunchly secularist army because of his past in political Islam. But the Turkish leader can count on the support of a surprising number of European Union policymakers.

They believe his election will further consolidate Turkish democracy and ensure stability by ending months of political turmoil sparked by the standoff between the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party and the secular elite, including army generals, judges and politicians.
Many in the EU are also convinced Mr. Gul will reinvigorate Ankara’s flagging bid to join the 27-nation bloc.
EU support for Mr. Gul -- including from heavyweights like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso -- is based not only on the urbane former foreign minister’s reputation as a determined and unwavering reformer and modernist, but also a strong conviction that despite his Islamist past, the new president will carefully adhere to Turkey’s secular constitution.
This in turn, say EU officials, will reinforce Turkey’s image as a stalwart modern democracy and help quell European fears over the mainly Muslim nation’s long-standing drive to join the European mainstream.
While some in Brussels and other EU capitals remain wary of allowing a Muslim nation to enter through EU gates, the Turkish army has few friends in Europe. Many believe the military’s commitment to secularism is mixed up with an unacceptable refusal to cede political authority and economic power to Turkey’s increasingly influential -- and more religious -- emerging middle class.
Significantly also, the Turkish army is no supporter of EU membership, with army officials in some cases deliberately obstructing the government’s pro-EU reform efforts. In addition, the ruling AKP -- from which Mr. Gul has now resigned -- is viewed as more modern, free-market oriented and more committed to human rights than secularist army officials.
As a result, EU officials who may be wary of the growing number of Muslim women wearing headscarves in Europe, are much more sanguine than Turkish army officers at Mr. Gul’s wife’s choice to cover her head, arguing that such matters should be left to personal choice and that there is no risk to the modern Turkish state from the headscarf -- if the choice is not politicized.
At a time of rising tensions between the West and Islam, EU policymakers also believe that Mr. Gul’s success or failure will dictate not only the future of Turkey but also determine whether Islam can co-exist with democracy and modern statehood.
With Turkey in good hands, Mr. Gul’s election could provide fresh impetus to Ankara’s on-again, off-again EU entry talks, Barroso told reporters. The arrival to power of a new government in Turkey was “an opportunity to give fresh, immediate and positive impetus to the EU accession process,” said Barroso, adding, “I am confident that you will fulfill your task with a strong sense of duty and commitment to your country and fellow citizens.”
Barroso’s favorable comments come only weeks before the Commission -- the EU’s executive arm -- is scheduled to release its annual evaluation of Turkey’s efforts to meet EU membership standards, including in the so far sticky areas of judicial reform, human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Last year, Olli Rehn, the Commission’s leading enlargement official, famously warned of a “train crash” in EU-Turkey negotiations over Ankara’s failure to step up the pace of reform.
When Ankara also refused to establish transport ties with EU member Cyprus, EU governments last December partially froze the membership talks in eight areas.
Discussions have reopened in two sectors since then but EU and Turkish officials admit that the negotiating momentum has been well and truly lost.
But a more upbeat scenario now looks possible given that French President Sarkozy, who campaigned against Turkish membership during this summer’s French presidential elections, appears to be having second thoughts about keeping Ankara out in the cold.
As a result, diplomats in Brussels say that Mr. Gul has the ideal platform to relaunch negotiations -- and keep them on track over the coming years. This may require nerves of steel, however, since the French leader is still insisting that only legislation that does not touch directly on EU membership should be discussed by the two sides. And the French leader also appears to be sticking to his calls for a union of countries on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, an option which Ankara has denounced as being designed to keep it out of the EU.
Mr. Gul’s reputation has been further boosted by the new pro-EU reformist cabinet announced last week which also reflects Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s aim to push ahead with stalled political and economic reforms needed to join the bloc.
EU officials are especially pleased at the appointment of Turkey’s chief EU negotiator Ali Babacan as the new foreign minister, as well as the fact that former banker Nazim Ekren was named minister in charge of coordinating economic issues, an important position as the government pushes for further economic reforms.
All eyes will also be on Suat Kiniklioglu, a new AKP member born and raised in Germany, who will play a key role in the government’s new public diplomacy. Mr. Kiniklioglu, a liberal-minded pro-European technocrat who was elected to the Turkish parliament after heading the Ankara office of the US German Marshall Fund, has said that despite the party’s Islamic roots, he is “not very religious” and his wife does not wear a headscarf.
But Mr. Kiniklioglu faces a tough task ahead. While the tide of public opinion in Europe now appears to be changing in favor of Turkey -- a Belgian newspaper went so far as to describe Mr. Gul as the “oriental George Clooney” -- skeptics in Germany and France remain convinced that EU accession will not only mean the spread of radical Islam in Europe but also the mass immigration of relatively poor and unskilled Turks into western Europe.
Time, however, is likely to be on Turkey’s side. Even the most enthusiastic pro-Turkey policymakers in Brussels admit that it could take Ankara up to 15 years to complete EU membership negotiations.
During that period, Turkish workers will be needed in Europe to reverse a demographic imbalance and help pay for pensions, changing current public aversion to immigration.
Increasingly also many in the EU argue that Turkey, with the second largest army in Nato, could help Europe fulfill ambitions to be a global player, especially at a time when most West European member states are reluctant to increase defense spending.
Even more importantly, given Europe’s dependence on energy supplies from an increasingly volatile and assertive Russia, there is a growing consensus that Turkey could help guarantee EU access to alternative energy sources in former Soviet states like Azerbaijan as well as suppliers in the Middle East.
As such even more than a “bridge” between Islam and the West, EU policymakers now see Turkey as an even more vital “corridor” for bringing much-needed Central Asian and Middle Eastern oil and gas into Europe.
The writer is DAWN’s correspondent based in Brussels