By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 26/03/07):
Turkey was not invited to Europe’s big birthday bash yesterday despite being an official candidate for EU membership. Ankara expressed disappointment at a «missed opportunity». Media reaction to the perceived snub was sharper.
«In the 1990s, the EU was a giant organisation governed by prominent leaders,» said leading columnist Mehmet Ali Birand. «Today it has become a fat midget that lacks perspective and is governed by small-thinkers.»
Disillusion with the EU has deepened since Brussels part-suspended talks in December after a row over Cyprus. The hostility, as seen from Ankara, of French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has poisoned the pot further.
But anger and frustration is slowly giving way to a new, more assertive idea: that perhaps Turkey does not really need Europe after all … – … and the EU will come to regret its insultingly complacent chauvinism as Turkey goes its own way.
«Europeans underestimate the importance and influence of Turkey,» said Fuat Keyman, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Koc university. «If they are serious about the future of Europe as a power in global affairs, they need to change their thinking.»
Turkey was recalibrating its external ties and the EU was but one part of the equation, Dr Keyman said. «Membership should not be seen just as a gift to Turkey. There are benefits for Europe, too.»
Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist, goes further: «The EU is off the radar. It has confirmed Turkey’s worst expectations. At present, it’s an irrelevancy.»
Turkey’s new-found confidence about life beyond Europe is based in part on a booming economy, whose sustained, IMF-supervised 7% annual growth rate far outperforms large EU states. Export earnings are rising too, including in the Arab lands of the old Ottoman empire.
Demographic trends are also boosting independent thinking, said Guven Sak, an Ankara-based economist. «In Turkey the working age population as a proportion of the total population is growing. In Europe, the opposite is true.»
Nor should Europe fear a new barbarian horde at the gates. Rates of growth meant that by 2015, Turkey could become a net importer of labour, he said.
Turkey’s increasingly important regional leadership role is also changing the way it views the EU. As a vital transit hub, it provides much of Europe’s oil and gas from the Caspian basin, Russia and, prospectively, the Turkic republics of central Asia. This is leading to closer cooperation with Moscow and reviving ideas of a Turkic Commonwealth from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan.
The «reformed Islamist» government in Ankara is also cultivating the Arab and Muslim world. It signalled a new strategic relationship with Egypt this week. It sent peacekeeping troops to Lebanon last year. It talks to Iran when many will not or cannot. Close links to Israel have not prevented the building of ties with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. And despite tensions with the Kurds, Turkey is northern Iraq’s main economic partner. Istanbul is the likely venue of next month’s Iraq summit.
Rising ultra-nationalism and «neo-Ottoman» thinking, Islamist extremism and political instability are the acknowledged dangers of Turkey’s rise. But its strength is its 70 million people’s drive and energy, a dynamic resource that flabby, middle-aged western Europe lacks.
And then, there is fierce pride. «Ours is the only country to reconcile Islam with a fully functioning, multiparty democracy in a modern, secular republic,» said opposition MP Sukru Elekdag. «Our experience shatters the myth that Islam cannot accommodate democracy.»
Officially, Turkey still wants to join the EU, says Faruk Logoglu of the Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara. But Europe must banish its ignorance and acknowledge its own needs. «Europe is not yet ready for Turkish membership,» he said. «It’s going to take a long time to educate the European public.»