Switzerland, which is totally surrounded by European countries and has a population that is mostly Christian and speaks French and German, has overwhelmingly rejected accession talks with the European Union, at least for several years to come. More than 76 percent of the Swiss voted in a referendum on March 4 to turn down a proposal that their government should begin immediate negotiations with Brussels. But Turkey, a Muslim country that is only partially situated in Europe and has a population that speaks no European language, is keen to join the EU, despite humiliatingly clear signs of rejection, largely on grounds of religion. Yet it should have been the EU that did the courting and not the reverse, given Turkey’s strategic position and its NATO membership, both of which make it an indispensable ally of the west.
In fact there are additional reasons why Europe and America value Turkey highly as an ally, and why Ankara could extract greater rewards for its unstinted cooperation, if only it would bargain more ruthlessly. These reasons include its support for Israel and its virulently anti-Islamic secularism, enshrined in the constitution of a country whose population is 98 percent Muslim. This misplaced secularism is valued in the west as a bulwark against the spread of ‘Islamic revivalism’.
Turkey’s geographical location alone gives it unique strategic importance. Not only does it form NATO’s eastern flank, but it shares borders with Russia and the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet Union republics. It is therefore seen as a counterweight to Moscow’s influence in the region which can help secure for the West access to the oil and gas bonanza of the Caspian Sea. Turkey also shares borders with Middle Eastern countries and plays a pivotal role in the implementation of Western (particularly American) foreign policy in the region. Ankara was, for instance, a member of the US-led coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, and US and British war-planes continue to this day to use its military bases to bomb Iraq.
It is not in doubt that these advantages are appreciated by the west, as the large IMF loan-package offered to Ankara last December to tackle its inflation crisis, and the public discussion of the issues in the western press and parliaments, make clear. The offer was raised at the time from $3.8 billion to $11.4 billion. But now that the quarrel between prime minister Bulent Ecevit and president Ahmet Necdet Sezev on February 19 has thrown the Turkish economy into free fall, the government wants a further $25 billion in IMF loans. Western financial analysts doubt whether Turkey will get anything like the $25 billion for which it is asking, but their opinion is that it will not be sent away empty-handed because of its strategic importance to the US and the EU.
The Economist, of London, for instance, commented on March 3: “He [Ecevit] will not get that, but he will at least get something. Turkey’s strategic importance both as a member of NATO and as a pivot between Europe, the Middle East and the oil-rich region on the southern edge of the former Soviet Union — means that neither the EU nor America can afford to let it collapse.”
Earlier Colin Powell, the new US secretary of state, told confirmation hearings that Turkey “has been one of our steadfast allies for a long time”. Powell also expected pressure on the IMF to increase its offer to Ankara, and resisted US treasury objections to the size of the offer. He was also instrumental in persuading president George W. Bush to offer support to Ecevit by phone on February 24. Bush also wrote to president Sezev expressing support.
But despite Powell’s and Bush’s warm sentiments, the secretary of state did not see fit to include Turkey in his itinerary during his recent visit to the Middle East, despite an official invitation from the Turkish government. Instead he held talks in Brussels with Ismail Cem, Turkey’s foreign minister. The basis of this policy is clear: while Turkey must be bailed out if it might collapse, it must not be rewarded. Its alliance and cooperation must, in other words, come as cheap as possible. This also explains why the EU is discouraging Turkey by setting humiliating and difficult terms, which will ensure that Turkey takes a long time to join, if it manages the feat at all.
How shabbily Turkey is being treated in this respect by its western allies is shown by their unbounded generosity to Israel, which is neither as valuable nor as cooperative as Ankara. For instance, Turkey (a NATO ally) cannot manufacture US warplanes under license; Israel can. In fact Turkey is obliged to pay Israel to maintain the F16s it has bought from the US in the first place. Turkey is not allowed access to US or Western military technology, nor to acquire nuclear capability. Israel not only possesses nuclear capability (financed by the US) but also gets away with denying that it has such capability.
Turkey can reverse this situation overnight if it exploits its bargaining power to the full and becomes less cooperative. It can, for instance, take a leaf out of Switzerland’s book and seek to delay its accession-talks with the EU. It can raise public questions about its role in NATO, and can only profit from forbidding Western countries to use its bases to bomb its Muslim neighbours. Switzerland is a member of the IMF and the World Bank, but not even a member of the United Nations. Ankara can learn lessons from the tendency of the Swiss to be wary of joining organisations and alliances that might not, after all, serve its own interests.
But the most potent and laudable action Ankara can take is to assert its Islamic heritage and amend its own constitution accordingly. Before it can do that, however, it has to get rid of its corrupt military rulers.