WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- European leaders should heed the old Balkan proverb: "Do not kick the Turk between the legs too often: eventually he will get irritated, and you will not like what happens next." Actually, I just made the proverb up, but they should heed it none the less.
The European Union kicked the Turks again in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week, and there is now some indication that Ankara will get irritated. Ironically, their reaction may in the long run be beneficial to Europe, Turkey, and America as well, provided the Bush administration chooses to take advantage of developments.
Turkey has been trying to get into the EU, or its predecessors, for decades. EU membership has become for Turkish politicians what the heart the Wizard of Oz bestowed was to the Tin Woodsman: a sort of validation of qualities it already possessed, but couldn't see. Meanwhile, the Europeans couldn't quite bring themselves to articulate exactly why they didn't want the Turks in, since it would dispel their own self-assessment as uniquely tolerant people. (It's Texans who are prejudiced, goes their narrative, not Europeans.)
Turkey already has many of the benefits that EU membership would bring; they effectively have free trade in most things with Europe though a series of agreements. Many of the things they hoped for from membership, like extensive development funding, is fast disappearing from the EU table as demands from new Eastern European entrants and tightening budgets in Western Europe diminish the pool of available cash.
Furthermore, the Turks never take into account the costs of the manifold EU regulations they would need to adopt, nor the fiscal constraints of ceding their key monetary decisions to officials in Frankfurt who know little and care less of the economic situation of Anatolia.
Now the EU decision-makers, gathered in Copenhagen, have told Turkey that by December 2004, perhaps, if it has sufficiently reformed itself, it will be given a date at which it can begin to discuss becoming an EU member. They were told they should consider this to be wonderful progress: previously, the EU had been unwilling to set a date, even conditionally, at which it would be given a date for start of negotiations.
Unsurprisingly, the Turks were not thrilled with this "progress." The question is, what will they do about it. The most interesting thing about this episode has been a comment made by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just before the Copenhagen meeting began, he said that, if the EU continued to drag its feet, Turkey would seek access to the North American Free Trade Agreement for strategic and economic security.
Now, this comment was undoubtedly made as a negotiating ploy, rather than an indication of genuine intent. However, Erdogan and his party have recently taken office in an upset victory with a mandate to overturn business as usual in Turkey. As such, they have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink old assumptions and policies. As the European drama continues to unfold, the Tin Woodsman Syndrome may become one of the old assumptions to be rethought.
A serious look at a transatlantic solution has some immediate benefits for the United States. Most critically, U.S. and British pressure on the EU to get serious about admitting Turkey was a major quid pro quo in the discussions about Turkish support for action against Iraq. Unfortunately, this meant that a critical U.S. interest becomes hostage to France and Germany doing something they really don't want to do. Even the pitiful deal achieved in Denmark contains enough qualifiers that Paris and Berlin can drag their feet for another decade past 2004 without settling the issue.
After Copenhagen, Bush has to go back to the Turks empty-handed. Blair, who has sold Britain's role in the EU as a means of helping achieve Anglo-American goals there, has to go back to Bush empty-handed. A transatlantic solution, on the other hand, allows the United States to make deals directly with Turkey, removing the Franco-German roadblock a critical support deal. Canada and Mexico have no reason to obstruct such a deal.
But a Turkey-NAFTA free trade deal, which would be easy enough to cut, could not be an end-point to the process. The existence of such a deal, or even serious negotiations on such a deal, would immediately begin to affect the dynamics of the Eastern European referenda on accepting EU membership. At present, many of those countries are seeing sinking numbers in polls regarding approval.
For the United States to endorse direct free trade with Turkey means abandoning a longstanding U.S. position that the EU is the place for its European (or partly-European) allies. Estonia, for instance, which is heavily anti-EU in opinion polling, may well ask whether the deal the Turks were getting might not be better than the one Brussels has to offer. The one question the EU cannot bear to have asked is "Is EU membership desirable? Compared to what?"
In the long run, any transatlantic extension of NAFTA opens up the whole question of whether the trade architecture of the developed world is going to be of rival inward-looking geographical blocs, as the Franco-German axis envisions, or of a broad architecture of free trade and cooperation, with narrower areas of very close cooperation. The Franco-German core of Europe already constitutes one such existing area; the United States and Canada, another.
Expanding the Franco-German core becomes more and more problematic the broader its reach becomes. A far better solution is to look at architectures for general free trade and cooperation throughout the NATO areas and beyond that permits more closely related groups of nations within that area to pursue closer integration along natural lines. The polycentric TAFTA -- TransAtlantic Free Trade Area, permitting nations to join individually -- described in previous columns is one such approach.
The Franco-German axis, along with its close Continental neighbors, forms one such area. This is the heart of the Eurosphere. The principal English-speaking nations, or Anglosphere, form another. There is even a potential Turkosphere: Turkey, northern Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and the Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia. The Anglosphere and the Eurosphere need not become rival blocs, but rather complementary parts of a wider cooperative structure, and one that better fits the complex interconnectivity of the emerging network world.
Such a structure could also more easily accommodate cases such as Turkey, which is indeed a poor fit into the Franco-German core of the Eurosphere, and which needs the flexibility to serve as a bridge between the West and the strategically important Turkosphere to its east.
Erdogan's threat to approach NAFTA, whether serious or not, is actually an invitation to a process that could end up satisfying all parties better than the status quo. Turkey could end up with a series of trade relationships more valuable than the EU alone without the continued frustrations and rejections of its current situation. America could end up with a satisfied ally in the short run, and an end to certain European ambitions to create a rival hegemon in the long run. Britain and Eastern Europe could find a formula that permitted them to enjoy trade with Western Europe and the Anglosphere alike without immersion in a European superstate. And the Western Europeans could be off the hook from their quasi-promise to pursue deep integration with Turkey.
Paris and Berlin do not currently like the idea of a TAFTA, polycentric or otherwise. But they would pay a substantial price for being off the hook with regard to Turkey. It's time for America, its fellow NAFTA nations, and Turkey to bypass Brussels and start talking seriously. Then we can see whether a polycentric TAFTA is a price the French and Germans would be willing to pay. In the long run, it would be better for everyone, even them.