Rationality and politics aren’t easy bedfellows, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the relationship between the EU and Turkey has become more prickly than is sensible for either side. But the case for them to forge closer links is overwhelming on economic, security and cultural grounds. 2013 could – and should – be the year the relationship takes a turn for the better.
We have come a long way from the heady days in 2005 when the EU and Turkey opened accession negotiations for Turkish membership. Only 8 “chapters” out of more than thirty have been opened – the rest blocked by the intransigence of Cyprus, France and other sceptics. Meanwhile there has been growing concern about human rights and other alleged abuses inside Turkey, including of journalists.
Turkish ardour has waned too. This is partly a popular response to the perception of the European rebuff. But it also reflected Turkish confidence about its power in the Middle East and beyond. “Zero problems with our neighbours” was the aspiration.
Both Europe and Turkey have good reason to think again about the current course. Europe because there is an economic giant on its doorstep, and it needs all the help it can get. Turkey because its neighbourhood is in such flux that Europe, with its democratic resilience and strong legal order, looks like an area of relative stability. And remember that Turkey is already a member of Nato.
The game changer could come from an unlikely source: France. Under Nicolas Sarkozy, France led the way in blocking the idea of Turkish membership of the EU. Francois Hollande, by contrast, has not said anything. But he has quietly announced a state visit to Turkey in April 2013, and those who know him stress the pragmatic and open-minded world view that he will bring to this issue.
The issue for President Hollande, and the rest of us, is not whether Turkey should join the EU in 2013. It is whether the commitment to membership is allowed to die by neglect, or whether it is given life through practical cooperation to overcome the obstacles to membership. The economics is not straightforward, nor are migration and other issues, but given the rate at which Turkey is growing, and the momentum a few years ago for internal reform, including new rights for Kurds, they are far from insuperable.
For those of us who desire an EU that is not just open to the world, but an advocate for a rules-based international order is not just rational but essential. France has a huge interest in this question. Its own European and global role is under question. It would be an important act of statesmanship for Mr Hollande to mark a clean break with the Sarkozy years on this year. I think he will do it.