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Confident Turks go cold on ailing EU 11 décembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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The Sunday Times (UK) 11 December 2011                              Türkçe

Matthew Campbell

Once keen to join, Turkey is now edging away from Europe to become a regional power, writes Matthew Campbell in Istanbul.

An affable, soft-spoken figure with impeccable English and an interest in opera, Cem Kozlu, a prominent Turkish businessman, can hardly be considered a rebel.

Photographs of him with every Turkish leader since the 1980s are scattered about his Istanbul office. A former chairman of Turkish Airlines, he serves on numerous boards, a respected pillar of the establishment.

Yet Kozlu, 65, is promoting a bold and subversive idea. It boils down to telling the European Union to get lost. « In the past nine years, Turkey has become more like an eastern, Asian country, » he said last week. « Is European membership essential for our future and survival? I don’t think so. » More and more Turks seem to agree with him.

Supported by Britain, Turkey’s long-standing application for EU membership has long been disdained by France, whose leaders argued that the country of 79m people at the crossroads of Europe and Asia was too big, poor and Muslim to be let in. The tables have now turned to such an extent that some wonder whether the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU.

With a growth rate to rival China’s and the strongest leader since Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish state, Turkey is observing the European shipwreck from the safety of dry land and wondering whether it should walk away.

For years, the EU has been lecturing Turkey about the changes it must make to qualify for a place in the civilised world but now it is Turkish officials who, with barely concealed glee, are giving lessons to Europe. Far from Turkey dragging down Europe, the worry in Istanbul is about its economy being infected by the European malaise.

« The European countries must put their houses in order, » said Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister. « They must carry out reforms. »

For Turkey, the most enjoyable aspect of the crisis is the spectacle of Greece, the historic enemy, going down with the EU wreckage.

« It serves them right, » said Akhun Celik, shovelling almonds into bags at his market stall. « Turkey would never have run up such a staggering amount of debt. We are honourable people. We pay back what we owe. »

Once solidly behind membership in the EU, public opinion has shifted: support has dropped from 73% in to 38% in six years.

Instead, Turks are rediscovering their eastern roots: at the Old Time Photo Studio, people are indulging nostalgia for the Ottoman era by dressing up as sultans or pashas for souvenir photographs.

« Everyone really enjoys it, » said Gozde Otman, the 28-year-old manager, who offers an array of costumes, including Ottoman military uniforms, and fake moustaches for customers to choose from. « Men seem to enjoy the feeling of power these uniforms give them, » she said.

The studio also attracts women who celebrate birthdays by posing in silky gowns with friends as concubines of an Ottoman harem.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the charismatic prime minister who swept to power in 2002, also seems drawn to the Ottoman model. Some suspect him of wanting to resurrect the Turk-led Muslim empire that conquered much of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa between the 14th and 18th centuries.

Whatever the case, he may have to slow down after undergoing what was described in the press as « keyhole surgery on his stomach » two weeks ago. He has almost disappeared from public view and the rumour swirling about Istanbul is that a serious condition has obliged him to stay away from the office.

He certainly has a crammed agenda: not content with transforming Turkey, he seems to want to change the rest of the world. On the day that he was overwhelmingly elected to a third term earlier this year, he declared: « Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara. »

The Iraq war and Arab spring have created a regional power vacuum that Erdogan apparently wants to fill. His increasingly muscular foreign policy has included a freeze in relations with Israel over its commando raid on a vessel that tried to reach Gaza from Turkey and an end to support for the Syrian regime in favour of antigovernment rebel forces. Israel, infuriated by Erdogan’s threats to station gunboats off the coast of Gaza, suspects a Turkish plot to unite the region’s Islamist parties in a network that could threaten the West.

Yet Erdogan’s advice to Egypt, where he received a rock star’s welcome, was — to the disappointment of the Muslim Brotherhood — to pursue Turkey’s brand of secularism as the best model of government.

Much to the fury of Tehran, Erdogan has also let Nato deploy anti-missile radar near the Turkish-Iranian border.

He has imposed full civilian control over Turkey’s generals, who staged military coups against elected governments four times between 1960 and 1997. However, he has done little to bolster confidence in his party’s commitment to democracy: hundreds of military officers, journalists and political dissidents are languishing in prison, some simply for criticising the government.

« When it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Turkey is worse than Russia, » said Cengiz Aktar, a political analyst.

Turkey is wrong, he argues, to suggest that it does not need the EU: Europe is Turkey’s top trading partner and accounts for 85% of direct foreign investment. « Self-confidence is healthy, » Aktar said. « Overconfidence is not. »

For Kozlu, who has just published a book called A Turkey That Can Say No to Europe, EU membership might have brought Turkey benefits years ago. Today, the story is different.

« Europe has no economic strength to share, » he said. Asia, meanwhile, was a more promising economic model. He argued that Turkey should scale down relations with European countries such as France, which had opposed its membership in the EU.

« Who is President Nicolas Sarkozy to say that Turkey is not part of Europe? We’ve been in Europe for 500 years. »

But although the past exercises a powerful psychic pull over Turks the country is not in the business of « neo-Ottoman » empire building.

« Turkey just wants to be an effective trading state, » he said.

Turkey’s membership talks with the EU are unlikely to make any progress when Cyprus, locked in an intractable political battle with Turkey for almost four decades, takes over the EU’s rotating presidency next July.

Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, recently dismissed Cyprus as « half a country » that would lead a « miserable union »; and the Turkish government has said it will boycott the Cypriot presidency, in effect freezing relations with the EU.

Turkish officials say in private that if the talks stay deadlocked for long they could ultimately be abandoned. Officially, though, the position is that Turkey still wants to become a member. « Hold on, Europe, » Egemen Bagis, the minister for EU affairs, exclaimed recently: « Turkey is coming to the rescue. »


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