Thursday

13th Aug 2020

Opinion

Did Barack Obama talk out of turn about Turkey?

On his tour of Europe earlier this week, US president Barack Obama spoke warmly about the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union. In address to members of the Turkish parliament in Ankara, he observed that "Turkey is bound to Europe by more than bridges over the Bosporus.

Centuries of shared history, culture, and commerce bring you together. Europe gains by diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith – it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation once more."

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Those words have led him into a diplomatic and political storm.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy rebuffed his American counterpart in an interview on French television, saying on the subject "When it comes to the European Union it is up to member states of the European Union to decide".

His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, echoed these remarks. "It's not for the Americans to decide who comes into Europe or not," he said. "We are in charge in our own house."

So what did Barack Obama think he was doing?

The facts about the relationship between Turkey and the EU are quite straightforward. Turkey first applied for membership in 1987 and negotiations are, after a fashion, ongoing. The Copenhagen criteria set down the economic and political conditions for membership and, right now, Turkey falls short of most of them. That in itself is not an obstacle to negotiations about membership, of course: the 10 former communist countries negotiated and reformed at the same time.

The negotiations with Turkey, however, have been remarkably slow, because the EU member states are themselves divided. Countries like Britain are firmly in favour of Turkish membership, while others such as France and Austria are against.

The reasons for these different positions have been well-rehearsed. What's more interesting today is the discussion about who decides and why.

The formal procedure is that negotiations are led by the European Commission, with unanimous agreement by the member states plus the approval of the European Parliament. The member states' views therefore individually matter, as do the views of the MEPs to be elected in June – ask your candidates about this in the coming election campaign – but where does Barack Obama fit in all of that?

The reason lies in the changing nature of EU membership. As time passes, the economic difference for Turkey between membership and non-membership of the EU is likely to decrease, as trading barriers fall and market access increases. Both bilateral and global trade agreements will speed this process along.

On the other hand, the political difference between membership and non-membership is likely to grow. If the EU fulfils the ambitions set out in the Lisbon treaty and becomes a more coherent and influential actor on the world stage, then Turkish membership of the EU will affect both the EU opinion on world events and also the Turkish view of them. Among the issues that might be affected in this way are relations with Iraq and Iran – Turkey shares a border with both of them – and the future security of Israel, with which Turkey has a close relationship. These are questions where the Americans have a strong geopolitical interest, too.

In other words, it's not the economy, stupid.

And Barack Obama understands this. In his own words to the EU leaders at a summit meeting in Prague, he said that "The United States and Europe must approach Muslims as our friends, neighbours and partners in fighting injustice, intolerance and violence. Moving forward towards Turkish membership in the EU would be an important signal of your commitment to this agenda and ensure that we continue to anchor Turkey firmly in Europe."

No-one can look at the history of the past 100 years and deny that America has an interest in the geopolitical health of Europe. A look at the last 10 years shows how America has an interest in good relations with the Muslim world. Turkish accession to the EU, or not, may be a European decision, but the Americans are entitled to have a view.

Barack Obama gets this too. "It is true that the United States is not a member of the EU, so it's not our decision to take, but that doesn't prevent me from having an opinion," he said.

"I've noticed that the Europeans have a lot of opinions about US policy for a long time and they've not been shy about expressing them. That's what friends do."

The writer is a commentator on European affairs, based in London, and a member of the board of Federal Union.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Column

Drums of war again, in Europe

Just a few weeks ago, as Europeans in several countries put their furious debates about masks and corona appsinto higher gear, Turkey and Greece almost came to blows in the Aegean Sea.

Schrems privacy ruling risks EU's ties to digital world

With more and more trade moving to the digital realm, Europe can ill-afford to cut itself off. Meanwhile, China continues to advance a vision for an internet that is fractured along national boundaries and controlled by governments.

Worrying rows over future EU chemicals policy

It is of utmost concern to the environmental health community that forces within the EU Commission are actively trying to push back against a European Green Deal that is supposed to put people's health at its core.

Letter

An open letter to the EPP on end of Hungary's press freedom

I hate to break it to you, but excuses have run out. You have to look at the images of sobbing journalists in Index's newsroom, and shoulder part of the blame. Your silence, your continued procrastination led to this.

Why EU beats US on green pandemic recovery

The United States recovery focused on a number of important issues, including unemployment benefits and funding for health care providers, but lacked any programs directed towards addressing pollution, renewable energy industries, and clean technology improvements.

Why hydrogen is no magic solution for EU Green Deal

Why is the EU Commission promoting a lose-lose (pay more, get less) strategy rather than the straightforward use of green electricity, where it will deliver bigger CO2-reductions and for less money?

Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy

As with the German government – which presented its own hydrogen strategy last month – the European Commission and other EU institutions appear to be similarly intoxicated by the false promises of the gas industry.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us