Ramifications for the Middle East and Islam

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What will Turkish EU membership mean for the Middle East and Islam? The spontaneous answer to this query is: "Nothing, or not much". Turkey will become an EU member country at the earliest by 2015; and then Turkey’s impact on EU foreign policy decisions will be limited. It will just have one voice among 30 countries, some of which, like France, the UK and Germany, have a long-standing role in the Middle East.

But let us take a closer look.

It appears very likely that, at their meeting on December 17, European heads of government will decide to open formal negotiations with Turkey with a view to membership. These negotiations will last for several years. Whatever their final outcome, they will bring Turkey closer to the European mainstream. Turkey will adopt European regulations and practices in many sensitive policy areas, from home and justice affairs to economic and social policy. It will demonstrate that democracy, the rule of law and personal freedom are perfectly compatible with Islam.

The reform process in Turkey will influence public opinion in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the GCC countries. It would, of course, be naive to believe that the Turkish example will, all of a sudden, transform the Middle East into a region of modernity. Turkey is already the most modern and democratic Muslim country in the region, without this having had any noticeable impact on its neighbors. But membership talks will project Turkey more often into the Arab media. Arab journalists will write more frequently on what is going on in Turkey and make comparisons with the Arab world. Turkey is also likely to attract more foreign direct investments and to develop economically more rapidly than most of its Arab neighbors.

Thus the very fact of entering into membership talks with the EU will make Turkey a more attractive country for the Arab world to watch and even to learn from. This would by itself be a welcome by-product of the negotiation process and the many reform steps that Turkey undertakes during the coming 10 years.

Membership negotiations will also have an important bearing on EU and Turkish relations with the Middle East. Turkey will align increasingly with EU positions toward the ME. The two sides will regularly consult on all issues arising in the region. The EU will be keen to obtain intelligence and assessment from Turkish diplomats and vice-versa. Turkey will join the EU voting pattern in the UN. It will closely follow EU involvement with Iran, the GCC, Iraq and the Mediterranean riparian countries, with which the EU has concluded association agreements.

Such joining of hands will strengthen both the EU and Turkey in their relations with the region, and the countries in the Middle East, including Israel, will anticipate joint EU/Turkish cooperation/initiatives long before Turkey legally enters the EU, and take this into account in their strategic thinking. This may apply to such sensitive areas as energy security. The EU will certainly look upon any future gas or oil pipelines passing through Turkey as a positive contribution to its own security of supply.

What then will change for EU relations with the Middle East if Turkey is a member country by the middle of the next decade?

Basically only one thing: direct neighborhood. The EU external borders will extend 1000 km farther east than presently (Cyprus). Geographically the EU will become part of the Middle East, sharing borders with three main players of the region, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This geographic shift is bound to have an impact on future EU relations with the region. Strategically the EU will become even better positioned than the US. Direct neighborhood creates problems and offers opportunities. If Mexico were situated at the southern end of Central America it would never have attracted so much attention from the US! Why should not Iraq or Iran call more often on the EU to help them resolve their problems?

It therefore seems safe to predict that the EU will become even more involved in Middle East issues than with Turkish EU membership than without it. If the EU has the desire and the political will, it might replace the US as the most influential power in the region.

According to the newly signed EU constitution, "the Union shall develop a special relationship with neighboring countries to establish an area of prosperity and good neighborliness" (Article I-57). With Turkey becoming an EU member these provisions will apply to countries in the Middle East and not only to the neighbors around the Mediterranean. And Turkey will, in its own interest, insist on the EU developing such a relationship, possibly even ahead of formal membership.

In conclusion, Turkey’s EU membership will make a difference for future European relations with the Middle East. The EU will have to focus even more on that sensitive region. Turkey will prove an asset for the EU in pursuing a course of closer relations. It will, after all, become the dominant power in the region, by virtue of its demographic, economic and political weight. This aspect constitutes no doubt one of the underlying motives for those diplomats and statesmen in the union who plead the cause of Turkish membership.

As the prospects for membership solidify, countries in the region will anticipate their outcome and accelerate the trend toward closer links. Thus the simple opening of negotiations for membership is likely to have a positive impact on Europe’s relations with the Middle East.

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