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The Turkish-European Rift Widens

While most of the media coverage regarding Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s trip to the United States has looked east, to Turkey’s burgeoning relationship with Syria and Iran, the real breaking news may concern Turkey’s faltering relationship with the European Union. In a speech at SAIS on Monday, Erdogan argued that Turkey’s accession is being followed ...

While most of the media coverage regarding Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s trip to the United States has looked east, to Turkey’s burgeoning relationship with Syria and Iran, the real breaking news may concern Turkey’s faltering relationship with the European Union.

In a speech at SAIS on Monday, Erdogan argued that Turkey’s accession is being followed closely by the Islamic world, as a sign of hope that old cultural divisions can finally be bridged. However, he attacked proposals to offer Turkey a "privileged position" with the EU instead of outright membership, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel had previously supported. Instead of making up new classifications of countries midway through the process, he said that those who did not support Turkey’s accession to "just come out and say it."

In a meeting with Erdogan’s senior foreign policy advisor Ibrahim Kalin and Suat Kiniklioglu, the spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Turkish Parliament, it was clear that Turkish frustrations run even deeper than Erdogan had let on. Kiniklioglu let it be known that his patience with the Europeans had run out, and that he was "tired of being lectured by French senators." According to him, European foot-dragging on Turkey’s accession had little to do with the lack of progress on the reforms called for in the accession process, but rather "the identity issue" – Europe is simply leery to let an overwhelmingly Muslim nation into its club.

While Erdogan and his advisors all maintained that Turkey’s decision to push for EU accession is still a "major strategic choice" of the country, frustration is building – and Turkey is not keen to remain in limbo on this issue forever. The Turks are trying to sell their admission into the EU by emphasizing how their large population and steady economic growth, not to mention their strategic location, could revitalize Europe’s role in international affairs. They are discouraged that this pitch seems to be greeted in Europe with a shrug. Kiniklioglu specifically pointed to the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council. "What does this tell you about the EU?" he asked rhetorically, that Europe would select a politician not well-known throughout Europe – "or even, from what I’ve heard, among Belgians?"

Woven into all of this Europe-bashing was praise for the Obama administration’s ability to adapt quickly to the changing dynamics of Turkish politics. This could be explained as a simple courtesy visiting diplomats bestow on the host country, but there is good reason to believe it is sincere: Obama gave a gracious speech in the Turkish Parliament soon after his inauguration, which unambiguously declared Turkey a part of Europe, and his openness to negotiating with dirty regimes is in line with the Turkish outlook. The trip was certainly not all happy talks and hugs (to wit: the startling resignation of Turkey’s ambassador), but Obama should look closely at leveraging his good reputation with the Turks, and with the Europeans, into patching up this failing relationship.

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