Daily Archives: December 28, 2012

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.

The number 13 is unlucky in Western minds. It is not in Asian minds. This may explain in part why many Westerners view 2013 with foreboding. Most Asians do not.

Of course, if the US Congress takes the world off the fiscal cliff or if the eurozone finally cracks up, all bets are off. The global economy will then have another painful stumble. Fortunately, this is not likely to happen. Indeed, the prospects are that both the US and China will do better in 2013 than in 2012. So too will many other Asian countries.

Asia’s underlying trend – its resurgence – will continue in 2013. In 2012, about 500m Asians enjoy middle class standards. By 2020, that number will grow to 1.75bn. The demand for all kinds of products will grow. India had no cellphones in 1990. It had 752m in 2010. Now they are switching to smartphones. In 2012, there are 17 m smartphones in India. In 2015, there will be 79m. Tourism will flourish. New hotels are everywhere. Asian budget carriers grew 23 per cent in 2012 versus 8 per cent for traditional airlines, while analysts project that online bookings for budget airlines will grow 55 per cent from 2011 in 2013. Asians are on the move.

The material rise of Asia is easier to document. The mental and spiritual resurgence is harder to keep track of, even though there has been recently an undeniable explosion in the cultural confidence of Asians. Nevertheless, some key projects provide symbols of a new era. Nalanda University, Asia’s greatest university from 500 AD to almost 1200 AD, will continue its gentle restoration under Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who heads the “Nalanda Mentor Group”. In August 2013, the first batch of students will enroll at the Yale-NUS College. From this tiny seed, a great plant will grow. Projects that bring together the best of Eastern and Western learning will demonstrate that the fusion of civilisations (not the clash of civilisations) will represent the main dynamic of the 21st century. It will all be part of the great convergence of human history that we will experience as the planet continues to shrink inexorably.

Yes, there will be challenges aplenty. Geopolitics will rear its head everywhere. But countries can also learn from mistakes. In 2012, China committed a huge geopolitical blunder by trying to divide the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the Phnom Penh meeting in November. As Xi Jinping gradually consolidates his power and wiser counsel prevails, China may realise the wisdom of Deng’s advice to China to hide its strength and bide its time. With major leadership transitions over in Beijing and Washington, DC, the main geopolitical relationship of our time will veer towards stability and predictability in 2013.

All this may be seen as pure wishful thinking by sceptical Western minds. But the evidence that history has finally turned a corner in the second decade of the 21st century is undeniable. This is why it will be clearer, as this decade unfolds, that the sun will continue rising in the east and continue gently setting in the west.

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