Turkey's EU Membership Bid

A Security Policy Risk

Proponents of Turkey joining the EU generally point to strategic advantages. However, Turkish membership would bring no tangible benefits because the EU is not yet ready to tackle major security policy challenges, argues Erich Reiter

Despite all difficulties that Turkish membership would entail, many observers see big advantages for the EU. They contend that Turkey would give the European Union a stronger position in terms of foreign and security policy. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer even enthusiastically claimed that membership would transform the EU into a major world power.

According to this over-optimistic view, Turkey would give the EU a strategically important outpost in the East Middle East. After all, Turkey is a regional power in a strategically important region. It is thought that this would enhance the influence of the European Union in the Middle East, a region that is rife with conflict.

The EU would become a major global player, and the relatively large Turkish military would strengthen European security and defense policy. This fits in perfectly with European plans to develop a police force for crisis intervention that would lend military muscle to EU foreign policy.

Limited security policy influence

This line of reasoning would make sense if the EU were an effective foreign and security policy organization and had developed an adequate degree of effectiveness in crisis and conflict management. But that is simply not the case. The above arguments overestimate the security policy influence of the EU and are based more on wishful thinking than reality.

When it comes to security policy, the main accomplishment of the EU is that it has united Western and Central Europe to form a peaceful, stable region in which member countries resolve their conflicts of interest in a nonviolent manner. Of course NATO has also made a significant contribution to a peaceful and stable Europe.

But it is only thanks to the EU that there exists a framework for voluntary cooperation that induces states to create a common foreign policy in a number of areas, and in many ways, this has made the European Union into an economic and financial powerhouse, which has created a state-like superstructure linking its members.

These structures, combined with agreements with non-members, have made the EU the largest economic network in the world. Its members form no opposing coalitions that could lead to international conflicts or wars. As long as the EU functions and NATO exists, Europe will remain stable and need not fear outside threats.

An independent player

In addition to these accomplishments, the EU aims to forge a common security and defense policy. This is intended to enhance the effectiveness of European joint foreign policy and allow the EU to launch independent "humanitarian, rescue, peace-maintaining and even combat missions to deal with crisis situations, including peacemaking initiatives."

According to the European security strategy of December 2003, the EU should become an independently effective global player that engages in crisis and conflict management and ensures stability, primarily on the edges of Europe and in the surrounding region.

The European Union can already boast a number of security policy achievements, and has been particularly successful in preventing an escalation of the conflict in Macedonia. However, more challenging conflicts such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo have been tackled by NATO under American leadership, and neither today nor in the foreseeable future will the EU be militarily capable or politically prepared for this type of crisis management.

As we all know, Turkey has been a member of NATO for years. A common European foreign policy is only in its infancy. The desire to safeguard national interests still dominates EU policies. Until Europeans find common ground for their initiatives, there can be no substantial progress towards establishing a common security and defense policy.

Workability and expansion

Despite all the rhetoric, the EU still has a long ways to go before it can become an internationally effective player in the realm of security policy. Nevertheless, it constitutes a zone of stability that more or less includes surrounding states. It can maintain this stability effect for Europe as long as it is not strategically overextended, and as long as there is a certain degree of agreement concerning the interests and objectives of its members.

Thus, the EU can only maintain a peacekeeping function and realize a workable defense policy as long as it avoids overextending itself. Europe's security police functions are bound to suffer if a common denominator has to be found among too many divergent interests and too many members insist on pursuing their own national interests, with no regard for the overall interests of the EU.

With this in mind, Europe's chances of further developing its own common foreign and security policy have already been compromised due to the large eastward and southward expansion in 2004, which saw the addition of ten – for the most part not entirely prepared new members – and the recent acceptance of two countries that were far from ready for membership, Rumania and Bulgaria in January, 2007. The zone of stability has been expanded, but the actual level of stability has diminished.

A larger zone – less stability

In addition to being a particularly large new addition to the EU, with a population of roughly 74 million, Turkey pursues its own national interests with particular determination and sees absolutely no need to restrict the scope of its policies to bring them into line with overall EU interests. Given its considerable size, as a leading power, Turkey would also claim the right to shape EU security policy to satisfy its own interests, and would use the EU to bolster its position as a regional power in the Middle East.

Due to its geographical location, Turkey does in fact play a significant geopolitical and geostrategic role in the Middle East. Were it to become a member, the boarders of the EU would extend to the Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia and, with the enclave of Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, as well as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Such a situation would increasingly draw the EU into a vortex of political problems in the Middle East. This would demand conflict management skills that the European Union has not yet acquired.

How can today's tentative common foreign and security policy develop and flourish in one of the world's most volatile regions, when today the EU still has considerable difficulties managing conflicts in the Balkans, where the stakes almost appear banal in comparison with the Middle East? It doesn't require psychic powers to predict that the EU would very soon be dangerously out of its depth in critical and risky crisis management situations involving the possibility of new wars and nuclear conflicts.

Although the EU has highly praised its own initiative to find a diplomatic solution to tensions over Iran's nuclear policies, in actual fact, nothing has been accomplished. The vast majority of EU members are not willing to get involved in serious conflicts.

A problematic member

As a member country, Turkey would introduce potentially serious conflicts with neighbors on the new EU borders. For instance, there is the sensitive issue of water rights for the Euphrates and the Tigris, where Turkey is at odds with Iraq and particularly with Syria. Due to their history, Turkey and Russia compete for influence over the Turkic-dominated Caucasus republics and Central Asia, which also happens to be Russia's geopolitical backyard, a fact that could in turn strain medium and long-term relations with the European Union.

Even though Turkey and Russia are currently working to improve their relations, their existing geopolitical rivalry should not be underestimated.

Turkey does not acknowledge the collective rights of minorities, although it is a country with important minority groups. Failing to recognize the Kurds as an ethnic minority will adversely affect the long-term stability of the country, and could burden relations with neighboring states like Iran, Iraq and Syria, which also have large Kurdish minorities. The importance of all these factors should not be overestimated, but they definitely do not create security policy advantages for the EU.

Erich Reiter

© NZZ/Qantara.de 2007

Erich Reiter is the head of the security section in the Austrian Defence Ministry.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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