If the current Euro crisis ends up leaving the E.U. fractured, moribund and/or substantively dead – a much stronger possibility than would’ve stalked Mario Draghi’s nightmares only a year ago – the organization will nevertheless have racked up one considerable and hopefully irreversible achievement: guiding (most of) Eastern Europe through its period of post-revolutionary fragility into the club of stably democratic regions. Nothing is truly irreversible of course, and due credit for the achievement must go the citizens of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia etc. for demanding institutional accountability from their governments. Still, it’s generally accepted that the prospect of joining the E.U. and the disciplining effects of the acquis communautaire were crucial in averting pseudo-authoritarian drift east of the Elbe.
This morning’s New York Times piece on Europe’s fading allure in Turkey is worth reading with this history in mind. Turkey has been trying to enter the E.U. (in its various permutations) since the Ankara agreement in 1963. It’s candidacy was finally confirmed in 1999, only to witness another decade of stagnation and drift. Europe’s technocrats laid out a theoretical path to membership all while fretting about Turkey being “too big, too poor, and too Muslim,” and they never really stopped fretting. Turkey, both at governmental and citizen levels, is losing patience. That the economic elements of the European experiment are now proving to have been fatally ill-designed doesn’t help things. Still, the prospect of E.U. membership has had measurable and positive effects on Turkey’s domestic politics over the years. In particular, the requirement of democratic control of the armed forces (DECAF) seems to have helped moderate the Turkish military’s historical tendency toward political intervention, as well as improved the government’s overall human rights behavior. It also seems to have been a factor in discouraging some of the more illiberal urges of Turkey’s ruling AKP.
That Europe’s leaders bit off more than they could chew politically, economically and culturally by leaving the door half open to Turkish accession, though, was a very grave error.
Stably integrating Turkey into the E.U. – even if only partially – could have locked in a partnership with an emerging strategic actor in a crucial region. It would have given European leaders greater leverage in everything from the Arab Spring to the Israeli Palestinian conflict to the perennial machinations in the Persian Gulf. Instead, Europe faces a more independent-minded and (understandably) bitter society to its southeast with which it will have to contend much more flexibly (this assumes there’s still a “Europe” to speak of for much longer). As the luster of E.U. membership fades, so presumably will Europe’s influence on Turkish domestic politics. Whether recent democratic improvements will “lock in” or crumble under the weight of various domestic pressures remains to be seen, but the waning influence of the acquis is unlikely to prove constructive.
A couple of years ago I helped run a small panel of regional experts discussing Turkey’s then-marginally-less-moribund E.U. accession prospects. I recall one attendee, on being asked whether he thought Turkey would eventually achieve membership, responded that analytically, he couldn’t see how the Turks could pull it off, but that in his heart he felt they’d somehow manage. That attitude – a clear appreciation of the obstacles involved combined with a vague confidence that all would be muddled through in the end – seems emblematic of Europe’s tragically self-contradictory approach to Turkey in recent decades. I suspect that the costs will be significant, and felt for a very long time.
Update: A couple of rather embarrassing grammatical errors in the initial version of this post have been corrected. Mea culpa.