How frustrating when the object of obsession treats your friend like dirt, spurning every advance, but never entirely killing hope. How pathetic when your friend changes clothes, hairstyle, car, house and job at the hints from the object of obsession that such changes might give the poor soul a chance, when you know it will never be enough.
Do you risk speaking bluntly and advise to steer clear, or do you play along with the fantasy, knowing that it will never come to fruition, and figuring that experience will be the only teacher in this instance? Or do you succumb to the delusion yourself, and start to hope that the object of obsession can somehow be made to reform and change, and encourage the match against all the warning signs?
It seems that America has fallen into the latter trap with regards to its friend Turkey's fatal obsession with joining the European Union. For the past two decades, Turkey's political class has committed itself to joining the West rather than the East. They have pursued a course of making themselves a moderate, secular, democratic and free-market society. This is particularly remarkable considering that they border on a region that has chosen for the most part to pursue extremist, religiously fundamentalist, authoritarian and command-economy strategies, and which has resulted in leaving many of their people ignorant, poor, oppressed and backward while living in countries with natural wealth that in some cases is staggering.
Unfortunately, all of Turkey's good intentions in these areas -- economic, political, and strategic -- have become linked to European Union membership. To some extent this is a result of a different, highly successful experiment in joining one of the West's cooperative structure: NATO. Turkey's participation in NATO has been good for Turkey and good for the alliance. It has driven both the modernization and democratization of Turkey's military, gradually reducing its penchant for interfering in domestic politics.
In return, it has contributed greatly to securing NATO's southern flank with a strong and reliable partner. When Turkish membership in NATO was first proposed, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee was reported to have mused in Cabinet meeting, "I knew Johnny Turk. Fought him in the first war. Hmm. Rather have him on our side than on the other." This has proven to be a sound judgement.
The other driver for Turkey's enthusiasm has been the visible and positive effects of EU membership in the past for Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Access to European markets, easy mobility for guestworkers to Northern European jobs, well-funded European infrastructure grants, and pressure to reform archaic fiscal practices have all contributed greatly to the prosperity and stability of the once-poor entrants from the underdeveloped fringes of Europe.
What's wrong with these hopes and dreams, even assuming the EU would ever fulfill them, is that the price of EU entry has risen higher and higher, while the potential benefits are becoming more and more meager. With the potential entry of poor Eastern European nations, the claims on EU transfer payments increase, while the budget-pressed rich members grow more and more unwilling to increase spending.
Most critically, however, the EU grows more and more burdensome each day. The requirement that each new member adopt the crushing load of EU regulations, uncompetitive and archaic labor practices, and the one-size-doesn't-fit-anybody single currency would be a disaster for a still-developing nation like Turkey. These practices drag down highly developed economies like Germany's and France's. To impose them on a much poorer economy may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Still, Turkey has come to view EU membership as a sort of validation, and the American State Department has become the loyal friend that keeps trying to help fulfill that dream. The problem is that the U.S. ends up expending political capital with the Europeans in helping Turkey, in a quest that will probably disappoint by failing, and still disappoint if it succeeds. Now America is making a full-court press to get the Europeans, in their upcoming Copenhagen meeting, to set a date for setting a date for Turkey's EU membership. Such a prize!
Anchoring Ankara in the West is a worthwhile goal, both for Turkey's and the West's sake. But America critically needs to have a fallback plan in the event that the Europeans cannot be rolled over, or that they backslide at some future date.
In a recent column I mentioned the idea of a sort of economic equivalent of NATO. This would be a free-trade association that included the EU member-states, the NAFTA member-states, European states not in the EU, EU members that might prefer to leave the EU, and cases like Turkey, that might well not be permitted into the EU. This is a variant of the Transatlantic Free Trade Area proposal that has been proposed from time to time on both sides of the Atlantic. It is time to take the next step and study this option seriously.
The EU bureaucracy is not thrilled about any version of TAFTA, much less the sort of "polycentric" structure proposed here that does not make Brussels the gatekeeper for European members. However, it if were made the price of being let of the hook for Turkish membership in the EU, they might decide it was the better bargain. This, rather than pressure on Europe to let Turkey in, is the deal American diplomacy should be spending its political capital on.
Real friends don't let friends join the European Union.