Turkey's 1999 earthquake shook up the European landscape. Thawing relations with Greece and a ceasefire with the Kurds have finally opened the way to Turkish entry into the EU. The geopolitical implications are enormous.by Martin Walker / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Earthquakes are usually unrelieved calamities. But the deaths of some 18,000 Turks on 17th August 1999, may be remembered as a calamity which inspired a kind of miracle. The quake devastated the grim but bustling industrial city of Izmit and the tenements around the naval base of Golcuk. The miracle occurred when Turkey’s tragedy inspired an outpouring of sympathy and official aid from its neighbour and long-time nemesis, Greece. This was swiftly reciprocated by Turkey when Greece lost 120 lives in its own earthquake three weeks later. The aid also shifted something fundamental in the power politics of Europe. “All ideological arguments were flattened by the earthquake,” said Turkey’s young minister of tourism, Erkan Mumcu. “Lying under the rubble is the Turkish political and administrative system.”
Only two years earlier, Greece and Turkey had been on the brink of war over the ownership of some uninhabited rocks in the Aegean sea. Now the mayors of Greek islands whose prosperity rests on military bases which guard against the Turkish threat were taking up collections to help their neighbours. When Turkey’s health minister, Osman Durmus, declared that his country had no need of foreign help, least of all from Greece, he was widely denounced as an ignorant buffoon. “Thank You, Friends,” ran the headline, printed in the Greek alphabet, in Turkey’s biggest newspaper, Huriyet. Within the year, Greece and Turkey had signed numerous agreements to co-operate on tourism and protect the environment, to safeguard investments and fight organised crime. The foreign ministers of the two countries exchanged friendly visits, and bilateral talks began on military co-operation. Above all, after long blocking Turkey’s hopes of eventual EU membership, George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister, declared that it was time for his country to bury the hatchet and help Turkey into Europe.
The thaw with Greece was not the only miracle of that Turkish summer of 1999. The long cold war against Greece to the west had been matched by a 15-year anti-insurgency campaign against Kurdish separatists in the east. Indeed, the two struggles had recently seemed to come together. In February 1999, Turkish agents had seized Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party), the most militant and effective of the Kurdish guerrilla groups, at his hideout in Kenya-a hideout, it emerged, which had enjoyed the protection of the Greek embassy. But Öcalan, who had proposed political negotiations even before his capture, called for a ceasefire during his trial. The earthquake gave his PKK an opportunity to endorse this appeal and amid the national mood of grief and redemption in September it announced the end of the armed struggle.
That wasn’t the only significant change to result from Öcalan’s capture. In Greece, the breach of international agreements against co-operation with terrorism cost the foreign minister his job and lifted Papandreou into his place. US-educated Papandreou has staked his career on the belief that Greece’s interests are best served by a Turkey locked into prosperity and democracy through the EU.
A solution to the Kurdish problem?
The Kurdish political problem is far from resolved, even if the war has gone quiet. The struggle against Kurdish separatism, which has cost some 37,000 lives and saw repeated Turkish military incursions against Kurdish bases in Iraq, has been fought with great ferocity on both sides. At least 2,000 Kurdish villages were razed or cleared, adding floods of refugees to those Kurds already leaving the harsh land for the cities. Thousands of Turkish soldiers lost their lives in the conflict. Feelings on both sides ran high.
Despite the ceasefire, Ahmet Turan Demir, leader of the People’s Democracy Party, the only legal Kurdish party, was recently sentenced to a year in prison for a speech proposing an independent Kurdish state. Education and broadcasting in the Kurdish language remain illegal; it is only nine years since Turkey dropped the derogatory official term “mountain Turks” as a classification for the Kurds. Yet many of the roughly 12m Kurds-nearly a fifth of Turkey’s population-are fully integrated into Turkish society. Prime ministers, presidents, chiefs of the military staff, and about a quarter of current parliamentary deputies, have all proudly claimed some Kurdish ancestry. Some degree of limited autonomy and a relaxation of laws against Kurdish culture is now on the political agenda, if the military can be induced to agree.
Europe’s cautious welcome
The ceasefire loosened a log-jam. It finally broke four months after the earthquake, in December 1999, when the 15 heads of government of the EU, meeting in Helsinki, formally agreed that Turkey was now a candidate for membership. They were reacting to the lifting of the Greek blockade on Turkish hopes, to sustained pressure from successive US administrations, and also to clear signs that the end of the Kurdish war was opening the way for improvements in human rights. The decision was not easily achieved. There were long wrangles, and direct pressure from Washington, before agreement was reached on the wording of the EU’s position on Turkish accession. Even then Turkey’s response was uncertain, and Finnish and EU officials flew overnight to Turkey for a tense meeting. The eventual formula of the Helsinki Declaration welcomed “recent positive developments in Turkey” and concluded: “Turkey is a candidate state destined to join the EU on the basis of the same criteria as applied to other candidate states.”
Turkey’s full membership is not an immediate prospect. The long and stately minuet of the EU accession process only begins when a candidate has met Europe’s “Copenhagen criteria”: democratic institutions, a free press, the rule of law, and property rights. But if the Kurdish ceasefire holds, the accession process could begin in about 2005, to be followed by tortuous negotiations in which Turkey must incorporate 80,000 pages of EU rules and regulations. Formal membership could then follow between 2010 and 2020, depending on the pace of Turkey’s adjustment.
The implications of Turkey’s candidacy are profound for the geopolitics of the middle east and for the cultural mix of a Europe which can expect eventually some 15 to 20 per cent of its citizens to be Muslim, including Asians in Britain, North Africans in France, and more than 1.5m Turks working in Germany.
The bid for EU admission is also changing Turkey. Last May, the head of Turkey’s constitutional court, Ahmed Necet Sezer, took office as the country’s new president, despite concern in the armed forces over his liberalism. Sezer had called for a constitutional amendment to drop the laws which limit free speech, for Kurdish families to have the right to educate their children in their own language, and for rulings in military courts to be open to appeal. Above all, he had suggested that the 1982 constitution, installed by the Turkish military after the coup of 1980, imposed “unacceptable restrictions on basic freedoms” and should be revised to bring it into harmony with the European Convention on Human Rights. One sign of the new political climate was the publication, last June, of an official report from a parliamentary committee which acknowledged that the use of torture was systematic in Turkish jails.
The EU’s long refusal of candidacy status to a staunch Nato ally, even when former Warsaw Pact members with flimsy democratic credentials were welcomed into the accession process, has given prolonged offence to Turkey. The country first announced its desire to join in 1963. But the 1997 EU summit in Luxembourg had added humiliation to Turkish discomfiture when the host, Premier Jean-Claude Juncker, said that he did not wish “to sit at the same table with a bunch of torturers.” Helmut Kohl, then chancellor of Germany, had earlier signalled another form of exclusion for Turkey when he declared that the EU was “a Christian club.”
Greece was not the only obstacle to Turkey’s plan to join the EU, but the apparently implacable opposition of Athens allowed others to take shelter behind the Greek veto. Repeated nudgings from Washington that EU members should have due regard for Turkey’s strategic importance, and recognize that a fellow member of Nato deserved better of its partners, could be deflected by blaming Greece. But reluctant EU governments were left with little justification for exclusion once Athens softened its opposition last year.
Turkey’s historical role
For what seemed to be deep historical reasons, the Greek veto had looked immutable. Greece was the first of the provinces of the old Ottoman empire within Europe to win its independence, after a long, cruel war of liberation (1821-29)-a cause which engaged the sympathies of liberal Europe and tens of thousands of Hellenophile volunteers, and cost Lord Byron his life. Greek politics and national interests ever since had been defined by hostility to the Turks. Other Nato allies were startled by Greek sympathy for modern Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, forgetting Greek support of the other Ottoman provinces in the Balkans in their 19th-century campaigns for liberation. In the first world war, Greece joined the Allies once Turkey entered the fray on the German side. At the Versailles peace negotiations, Athens sought to win the last Turkish enclave in Europe, the great city of Constantinople and its shrunken hinterland, and sent its troops onto the Turkish mainland to occupy much of the Aegean coast. The successful campaign to drive them out was led by the founding father of the modern, post-Ottoman Turkish Republic, Mustapha Kemal, known thereafter as Ataturk, “the father of Turks.”
Thus the histories of modern Greece and modern Turkey were each born in war against the other. And despite the age-old fear of Russian designs on the Black Sea outlet to the Mediterranean at Constantinople (which became Istanbul under Ataturk) and the newer fear of communism that led them both to join Nato, the hostility continued.
Cyprus has also been a continuing irritant. The island’s Greeks and the Turks who joined them after the Ottoman conquest in the 14th century coexisted reasonably enough after the British took over in 1878. But UN peacekeepers arrived four years after Cyprus won its independence in 1960 and in 1974 extremists among the Greek majority, backed by the Greek military regime, sought to bring about union with Greece. Turkey invaded the north to protect the Turkish minority, establishing an occupation of the northern third of the island which continues to this day.
None the less, Turkey has a claim to share Europe’s cultural identity which reaches back more than 2,000 years. Troy, the city of Homer’s Iliad and, later, Virgil’s Aeneid, was built on what is now Turkish soil, across the narrow Dardanelles straits from Istanbul. The letter of Paul to the Ephesians was addressed to subjects of ancient Rome who inhabited the Greek city of Ephesus on what is now the Aegean coast of Turkey. Magnificent Greek and Roman ruins still testify to Turkey’s ancient connection to the west. The fall of the imperial Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1453 to the siege cannon of the Ottomans, fighting under the banner of Islam, was a religious interruption of a much older cultural association with Europe.
The Sublime Porte, as the seat of Ottoman power was known in the chancelleries of post-Renaissance Europe, may not have been a part of Christendom, but it held a prominent place in the councils and calculations of European power politics. Having laid siege to Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries, the empire commanded the Balkans into the late 19th century. Modern Turkey retains a foothold there to this day, in the province of Thrace, the hinterland of modern Istanbul.
As an ally of Britain, the Ottoman empire helped to defeat Napoleon at the siege of Acre in 1799, and as an ally of France and Britain in 1854, it helped to defeat Russia in the Crimean war. Even during the erosion of its Balkan rule in the 19th century, as Greece (1827), Romania (1866), Serbia (1882), and Bulgaria (1908) won independence, the Sublime Porte was a crucial element of the European balance. With the backing of most of the European powers, it fought off Russia’s efforts to escape the confines of the Black Sea through the Dardanelles. Thus both the old Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, while never quite perceived as a member of Europe’s cultural family, has always been a European power.
This ambiguity in Turkey’s position has been matched by its equally uncomfortable connection to the Islamic family. Ataturk rebelled against the old Ottoman system in the Young Turks’ revolt of 1908, in the name of modernising an antique government whose claim to its broader Arab empire rested on a dynasty which traced its ancestry back to Muhammad. After the first world war, and the loss of the empire which had stretched through Syria to regions that are now Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Ataturk founded modern Turkey as a resolutely secular state. He went so far as to ban the fez and replace Arabic script with the Latin alphabet. After 1945, when Turkey was connected to the west through Nato, its secular system of government kept the country officially aloof from the surges of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism which coursed through the middle east. The Turkish armed forces, which stand to this day as guarantor of Ataturk’s secular legacy and have mounted three military coups to preserve it, have resisted the growing influence of Islamic political parties and have even banned them at various times. These military interventions served to justify some of the EU’s long reluctance to accept Turkish membership; so did the political instability which inspired them.
The state of its economy is another hurdle for Turkey’s European hopes. With a per capita GDP of about one third the EU average, Turkey is much more prosperous than either Bulgaria or Romania, whose formal candidacies for EU membership were accepted in 1998. It can plausibly claim to be in the same economic league as Poland or the Czech Republic, which expect to be full members by 2005. But Turkey’s prosperity is unevenly distributed. Its industrial and service jobs are concentrated in the west and in the booming textile industry of the south. The plateaus and mountains in the east, largely inhabited by Kurds, are desperately poor. More than 40 per cent of the work force remains on the land; the EU average is less than 5 per cent. While the Turkish economy grew at an average rate of more than four percent annually during the 1990s, inflation has touched 100 per cent, and interest payments on the national debt claim more than 40 per cent of state revenues.
These are the economic contours of an unstable developing economy, which is precisely why Turkey has been so eager to join the EU’s great sphere of affluence. But the EU is already bracing itself for the accession of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states and Slovenia, over the next decade. Then, together with the costly and difficult task of rebuilding the shattered Balkans, will come the accession of the much poorer Bulgaria and Romania. Adding Turkey to this list means that the EU will be investing heavily in the development business for at least two generations.
The picture is not entirely bleak. As the new members become richer and their markets more attractive, they may themselves become growth locomotives, just as the recovering economies of western Europe were during the 1950s and 1960s. Turkey’s youthful population, with a third of its citizens under 15, promises some relief for the demographics of an ageing Europe. Overall, however, and despite the success in bringing stability and prosperity to Spain, Portugal, and Greece, Europeans might be forgiven for suspecting that the combination of Turkey’s religious, cultural, and economic differences makes it a most difficult candidate for their club.
A geopolitical gamble?
Turkey’s reliability as a Nato ally and as a bulwark against the spread of fundamentalist Islam, along with its strategic location in the middle east and on the southern flank of the former Soviet Union, has made it a particularly valued ally of the US. At an annual cost of more than $2 billion in lost trade and pipeline transit fees, Turkey continues to enforce the embargo against Iraq which began after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It also made its airfields available during and after the Gulf war. The Clinton administration worked closely with Turkey on the agreement to open a route to the west for oil from the Caspian Sea which would not be dependent on Russian pipelines. Ankara further endeared itself to the US by reaching a military agreement with Israel in 1996 which opened Turkish air space to Israeli air force exercises and included the sharing of military intelligence and personnel.
Ankara’s efforts were rewarded with the staunch support given by the Clinton administration to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU. This support has gone well beyond routine diplomatic pressure. During the 1996 EU summit in Wales, Clinton startled some European leaders by his unprecedented intervention in their affairs. He even telephoned the Greek premier, Constantine Simitis, to urge him to soften his opposition to EU efforts to resolve a tariff dispute which had cost Turkey some $350m. Along with America’s efforts to mediate the Cyprus problem by leaning on the Greeks, this has been the most assiduous use of US leverage on the European allies on behalf of another country since Kennedy’s support of British attempts to join the EEC during the early 1960s. (The Bush team is unlikely to change this overall approach, although-as in all other areas of foreign policy-it will be rather less activist.)
Why this effort? No doubt it owes something to Turkey’s loyalty. But part of the answer seems to be a deliberate American strategy to help set the future direction of the enlarged EU in a way which will be friendly to itself and Nato. The alternative course for Europe, to become a counterweight to US power, has long been a goal of French policy. In so far as the French conception of Europe threatens that long-held idea of transatlantic partnership, American policymakers have always been ready to rally their friends in Europe (in particular the British and the Dutch) to support the Atlanticist rather than the Gaullist stance. US support for the EU’s enlargement into central and eastern Europe has thus included the subtext that a Europe which includes pro-American and Nato allies such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic is a Europe which will be more reliably Atlanticist. Exactly the same logic applies to Turkey.
But Turkey’s membership has big geopolitical implications. With Turkey, the EU suddenly acquires as immediate neighbours Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Azerbaijan. This thrusts Europe directly into the tangled politics of the middle east, a region where Europeans and Americans have seldom seen eye to eye. So long as their strategic relationship was based in mainland Europe and anchored in Nato, European and US foreign policy interests were closely aligned. In the middle east, European and US policies towards Israel, towards terrorism, and towards Iran and Iraq have often been opposed-and not only because of Europe’s dependence on Arab oil. It was in the middle east that the defining clash of interests took place. France’s double decision to commit its strategic future to the new European Community and to develop its own nuclear weapons was a direct result of the US refusal, in 1956, to support the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt to recapture the Suez Canal. The Eisenhower administration engineered runs on the pound and the franc, and refused to support Britain and France against Soviet threats to “rain missiles” on Paris and London. America’s blunt insistence that its principal allies could not be permitted, in the context of the cold war, to embark on independent strategic adventures, remains a watershed in transatlantic relations. Britain responded by pursuing its vision of a special relationship with the US, accepting an increasingly subordinate role, while France sought freedom from American tutelage and, under de Gaulle, bitterly resisted American efforts to steer Britain into Europe.
Successive oil crises sharpened these transatlantic tensions. The Europeans, including the usually loyal Britain, refused to allow the US to use their airfields to resupply Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In the US air strike on Libya in 1986, US warplanes were forced to fly around French and Spanish air space. More recently, American sanctions on Iraq and Iran, and the threat to punish European business executives who defy them, have provoked serious arguments. The prospects for a clash of interests, between a US committed to its Israeli alliance and an EU more sympathetic to the Arab cause, are serious.
Turkey’s accession would also make the EU an immediate neighbour of the turbulent lands between the Black and Caspian seas. Attractive for the energy resources of the Caspian basin, the Transcaucasus region is forbidding. Ethnic clashes have in the past decade led to wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between Georgia and the Abkhazian separatists, and between Russia and the Chechen rebels. And even if a reformed Turkey achieves reconciliation with its Kurdish minority, the Kurds (across what would become the new EU border in Syria, Iraq, and Iran) have their own agendas, and histories of uprisings against national rulers. After the dispiriting and often divisive experience of coping with a war on its borders in the Balkans throughout the 1990s, the EU is wary of its proximity to such an unstable region.
A new kind of Europe
Americans have been accustomed to think of the EU as a plump and complacent club of wealthy western European allies, an economic giant and political dwarf, content to leave the great dramas of defence and grand strategy to the US. But the EU is no longer a western European body with its centre of gravity in Brussels and its strategic loyalties fixed on the Atlantic alliance. It is within measurable distance of expansion to more than 500m citizens from 28 different countries, with a greater combined GDP than that of the US, with its own currency, and with a geographic reach which will include the Baltic, the Black Sea, central Asia, and the middle east. While Nato, trade and investment links, cultural values, and sheer habit keep it tied to the US, its strategic concerns now drive it to the east and south, into intimate and neighbourly relations with Russia, the middle east, the Persian Gulf, and central Asia. These are regions where the US is accustomed to primacy. But like it or not and thanks in no small degree to US policy (Clinton even urged the EU to leave its door open for Russia and the Ukraine), future administrations are going to have to come to terms with the EU as a Eurasian power, with its own interests to assert.
The Turkish miracle has been a triumph of Greek vision, Turkish dreams, and American diplomacy. If Turkey proceeds towards EU membership, Europe will be pushed into a new role-and Americans may one day come to regret this. All great strategic decisions are a gamble. But the prospect of a Greater Europe one day becoming a serious rival to US interests in the middle east as a result of Turkish EU membership, has to be balanced against the real possibility of a democratic and prosperous Turkey exercising a liberalising and civilising influence throughout central Asia and the middle east.