Under the radar

The seemingly inexorable if slow process of Turkey joining the EU posits a number of interesting scenarios for European relations with the Middle East, though in some cases the effect is overstated.

First is the question of religious identity. Europe already has a large number of Muslim citizens, that are more or less integrated into the various countries of the union, but only with the entry of a Muslim country does Europe truly break free of its Christian, even if secular, identity. The ramifications for Europe’s relations with the Muslim world in general could be vast. The EU will be able to present itself as a truly inclusive union that can function both as a partner to the Muslim world, and as an example of (hopefully) successful co-existence across civilizations. In this context, it would also snub its nose at the American neo-conservative belief that different civilizations should necessarily be in conflict.

Then there is the economy. The Middle East is sometimes seen as Europe’s backyard, and with Turkey’s entry this would truly be the case. Europe would suddenly border Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the incentive for the EU to involve itself dramatically in the economic development of these countries to ensure stability and prosperity would soar. The Middle East remains a consumer market, and Europe would be bound to want to take advantage of this. Thus it would need to ensure that the purchasing power of Middle Eastern countries remain high and ditto the incentive to spend, i.e. political stability.

This is a two-way street. Iran, Iraq and Syria might be the more immediate beneficiaries of having such a vast market right next to them, and the possibilities that are opened up could have their effect on these countries internally as they seek to take advantage. Further afield the effect should also be felt, as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the countries across North Africa, each with its own separate ties to Europe, as well as the Gulf countries, already the most important suppliers to the European oil market, jockey to make the most of it.

This leaves only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The EU has been successfully sidelined by Israel, which seeks only the involvement of the US, safe in the knowledge that America is willing to accept an Israeli line on the conflict. Here, it is not so clear that an EU with Turkey will make much of a difference. Turkey and Israel already have strong ties, though those ties may become less important to Turkey with membership, thus lessening their regional strategic relevance.

But Turkey is not an Arab state, and, while always publicly supportive of the Palestinian cause, has never thrown too much of its weight behind it. In addition, it is not clear to what extent Turkey can, or will want to, pursue a foreign policy independent of the EU’s, where it will be just one voice among many, and by no stretch of the imagination a major one.

In one respect, however, Turkish membership might provide an example. EU membership should lessen tensions over Cyprus, where strongly drawn nationalist lines will be blurred by open commercial borders, no restrictions on the movement of labor and fewer bureaucratic structural differences. This could point a way forward.

In addition, a strengthened Muslim voice within the EU could force a more united and determined stance vis-à-vis the conflict, while the need to get the region on a path of stability and progress should focus attention on what remains one of the fundamental problems here.

Broadly speaking, Turkish EU membership should have many advantages for Turkey, the EU and the Middle East in general, though it remains less clear what positive effect this might have for Palestinians, and thus for Israelis.