Remember when Turkey was going to be the next member of the European Union? I don’t either; surely you remember all the talk and the negotiations surrounding the partnership. Since 1959 the large, Muslim-dominated country has been trying to gain access to the European fraternity. Serious discussions have been ongoing since 2005 and supposedly continue today. The problem is that even if Turkey is able to comply with the all of the criteria for joining the EU, it could (and probably will be) shut out. Why? It is large and poor and membership would provoke mass immigration; it would cost the EU too much and Turkey isn’t even “culturally European.” Also it is Muslim (”The former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, once said that the EU was a “Christian club”. That view continues to be held in some European Christian Democrat parties.”) Cyprus, Austria, France and Denmark don’t want Turkey, but at least Germany offers a ‘privileged partnership.”
While the EU takes its time on its ‘negotiations,’ Turkey is benefiting. Not only has its quest for EU acceptance helped with development, Turkey has started looking a bit more to the Middle East. Not only has the Turkish population lost interest in joining Europe (Turkish domestic support for EU membership has dropped from 62% in 2004 to 41% in 2008), but it has started establishing stronger ties with Middle Eastern states. After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dissed Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in January over a discussion about the Gaza conflict, Middle Eastern States have been lining up to shake hands with their northern neighbor.
Syria and Turkey have seen some serious rapprochement since the lifting of visa restrictions in September. Certainly the reconciliation between the two one-time rivals is partially economically driven (trade doubled from 2007 to 2008 and again to 2009 between the two), but it is also perhaps a major sign of recalibration of Syrian policy. In October, Syria refused to sign an economic agreement with the EU, an agreement that Syria had desired since 2004. This change in stance was undoubtedly influenced by the good will between Syria and Turkey. Now, PM Erdogan is planning a visit to Damascus to meet with Syria President Bashar al-Assad and to sign some economic and military cooperation agreements.
Moreover, President Mubarak of Egypt will be visiting Ankara for the second time this year while Amr Mousa – head of the Arab League – just returned from the Turkish capital. Yet, Turkey is not the only Middle Eastern power to be having these fun parties. Lebanese PM Saad Hariri is soon to visit President Assad in Damascus while Hizbollah chief Nasrallah might be headed to Riyadh soon. This, of course, follows Syrian and Jordan talks earlier this year.
But no one seems ready to call Mission Accomplished on this new round of Arab reconciliation. While the Doha talks earlier this year had promise, we all remember the distinct lack of agreement there. Similarly, distrust and disagreement still remain profound today. Lebanon remains disjointed (it also has two armies…) while Saudi Arabia thinks that Hizbollah is preventing true Lebanese sovereignty.
It will be interesting to see how all this shapes up. With the US soon to send an ambassador to Syria, a Turkish-Syrian partnership could prove to be a blessing for the Middle East.
*Picture from Shamel Azmeh