Interview Ron Asmus: US has a legitimate interest in EU’s debate on Turkey

The European debate about Turkey’s EU membership takes place against a backdrop of a serious weakening of the US-Turkish relationship, which makes the EU’s relations with Turkey all the more important.

European newspapers have reported the negative spin about the future Turkish EU-membership coming from Angela Merkel of the German CDU party, and from leading French politician Nicolas Sarkozy about Turkish EU-membership. If there is indeed a major backlash happening, what are the stakes and implications from a US point of view? 

I think the first thing one has to note, separate from the debate about EU enlargement to Turkey or not, is that Turkey is more important than ever before in a world where strategic intention is shifting to the East and South. You used to think of Turkey as being on the periphery of NATO and Europe, but it’s now in the centre as our strategic focus has shifted to the Middle East and to Eurasia. So the importance of Turkey succeeding in its own domestic modernisation and democratisation reforms, I would argue, is more important than at any time in the last fifty years – for Europe, for the United States, for everyone. So my point of departure is that we have to recognize Turkey has become more, not less, important since the end of the Cold War and since September 11th etc. 

The second question, therefore, is: if you believe that, how do we pull Turkey towards us and how do we anchor Turkey more firmly to the West? That is why, since Turkey is already in NATO but not in the EU, and since we’ve had a government come to power in Turkey this summer that’s committed to making the kind of changes within Turkey that will make them a credible candidate, that’s why this has been seen as such a unique window. You have for the first time in many, many years a Turkish government willing not only to talk the talk but walk the walk, and pursue the kinds of reforms in Turkey that we’ve all hoped for. Now, that’s why the issue of Turkish membership has gone from theory to reality, and that’s why the debate has heated up as people are now confronting a country that’s becoming a much more credible and real candidate, that is much more serious.

While I’m an American and this is a European decision, II would ask Europeans to understand that how you make this decision also affects American interests. So we have a legitimate interest as an outsider in how your debate unfolds and emerges, without wanting to interfere.

How does it affect American interests, could you be more specific about that? 

Just to take the obvious scenario, if Europe were to reject Turkey and Turkey were to be destabilised as a result of that rejection, that directly affects American stability in Europe, in the region, maybe in the Middle East, and directly affects American security interests. Above all, it is one of the paradoxes of this debate about EU membership that it takes place against a backdrop of a serious weakening of the US-Turkish relationship. And if you look at public opinion-polls it is easy to conclude that Turkey is among the most – if not the most – anti-American country in Europe today. The very strong historical US-Turkish bonds have frayed badly over the war in Iraq and other issues. 

So you have a constellation where the Turkish bond to America has been seriously weakened, and we need to think about how best to repair that; and if Turkey’s bonds to Europe were to also weaken at the same time this part of the world would be getting a little bit more dangerous, as opposed to safer. A footnote: if people think that Turkey rejected by Europe will simply come running back to mother America, I’m not sure. I’m not sure about what’s going to happen in Turkey; the alternative could be a much more nationalist, xenophobic strain of Turkish politics, which would be very bad.

I don’t believe the French and Dutch referenda were dramatically affected by the Turkish issue, I remain to be convinced. I think that if the French and Dutch economies were growing at 3 percent it would have been a very different debate. I think that these referenda were complicated, there were a lot of different factors that came together, but yesterday there was a story you may have seen about how 3 – 6 percent of the French and Dutch voted No because of Turkey. That said, I think that you just need to read the papers to understand that the referenda in France and the Netherlands are leading to a rethinking of the pace and scope of enlargement.

I would hope, and I still believe, that accession talks with Turkey will start on October 3. In Germany, the leadership of the Christian Democrats have made it clear they want those talks to start. The question will be over what the goal is: whether the talks are designed to lead to membership or a privileged partnership. And what I say to my Turkish friends is, the key lies in your hands; you have to continue to transform and modernize Turkey in a way that your success changes views in Europe and reassures Europeans. 

We all know that this is still a decade-long process, and that ultimate decisions on Turkey will not be made necessarily by this or the next French or German or European government, but one or two governments down the road – and the real question is, can the Turks keep up the momentum for reform? Can they look at this uncertainty and say, we want to modernize and change our country not to make Germans or French or Dutch happy, but for ourselves; and as we become a more modern, open, democratic place we will be a stronger candidate and Europeans who are skeptical today might start to rethink their views. And the debate we’ll have in seven years will be different from the debate we have today – that is, assuming a degree of rationality on all sides.

It’s obvious that EU membership is an important carrot for Turkey at this point, but if this carrot becomes less obvious, then what you said about the Turks also doing themselves a favour by reforming, may not be such a strong incentive in itself? 

Well, I think as an American when you look at this, and you look at why Americans think differently to many Europeans (including some of our closest friends and allies) Americans tend to look at Turkey and see a big country with huge potential that is on balance an asset, but has problems. Many Europeans look at Turkey and see a big country with lots of problems, that in some ways may be an asset. So we tend to see the potential and the plus, and we say locking in a country of that size, with that potential, of that strength on your side, shoring up the Southern frontier of Europe, buttressing an unstable Middle-East, reaching out into the Middle East – plus, plus, plus. To be sure, some very real problems, but those are problems that are manageable, you have a decade to deal with them, etc. Europeans tend to see the downsides and it’s harder for Europeans to see the potential. So we tend to see Turkey as country with problems but an asset, and Europeans tend to see it as a debit, and that’s why the debate is so different.

I think the key question is, how do we avoid the negative spiral you hinted at, so that the murkier perspective in Europe as to what Turkey’s final relationship within the EU will be does not lead to a deceleration of reform and modernization in Turkey, and we continue to strengthen the hand of reformers and modernizers in Turkey and not the hands of those who are more autocratic, xenophobic nationalists. And if we get into the wrong spiral, where Europe starts backing off, and that undercuts reform in Turkey and then Turkey says ‘To Hell with Europe’, and then Europe says, ‘Well, this just proves what we said all along, Turkey is not really a European country’, and that in turn lets Turkey say, ‘See, the Europeans were always duplicitous, we never could trust them, we need to go it alone, we need an autarky strategy as we can’t rely on either the Europeans or the Americans,’…then we could end up with a rather unpleasant scenario in the not-too-distant future. That risk is very real and we need to think about how to minimize it.

I also think that the reality that everyone is a little bit shy to admit is that with the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we went from a Europe that was defined in mostly Western European terms to a Europe that was defined in much broader pan-European terms. We made the mental and intellectual strategic shift from Western Europe to Europe as a whole, Baltic to the Black See. If you were to go back ten years in time, it wasn’t at all clear that everyone wanted to make that shift. But now it’s conventional wisdom, all these countries are members of NATO, coming into the EU. But what is now on the table as a result of Turkey, followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, is yet another redefinition of Europe that will embrace the next band of states, going from Ukraine, maybe even Belarus in ten years time, were it ever to become free and democratic. 

It’s not just Turkey; it’s Turkey and Ukraine, and the Caucuses – it’s another redefinition of our mental map of Europe. And what relationship all these countries will have with the EU is what is on the table; Turkey is the start, but I don’t believe that if Turkey becomes a member of the EU that a successfully democratizing Ukraine can, will or should be kept out. So, there’s a much bigger debate out there, that’s coming right at us.

On enlargement Europe has taken a direction that is not very clear, in the sense that we haven’t defined where the limits should be, we have just said that it is open to new debate. In the end it always seems to boil to ‘Well, we didn’t communicate it well enough,’ – that’s when the EU leaders do their soul searching. But can it really be a matter of communication only? 

As I, as an American residing in Brussels, look at and try to understand this debate, and when American journalists come to me and say, What happened and why?, I always say the number one issue in the debate here is economic: it’s stagnation, its growth. And it’s the lack of success of European governments in providing economic strategies that’s led to the rejection of globalization and competition, and enlargement’s got wrapped up in that. High unemployment, outsourcing, insecurity about social and economic stability and security…now I should think enlargement is part of the answer to how you get out of that situation, but that link is not clear or necessarily evident to everyone. So I think the way out of the current crisis has to be addressing those core issues.

The second point, I would argue, is different in the French debate to in the Dutch debate. Certainly, in the French debate the second factor was an intuitive sense among many Frenchmen that the EU is becoming something different to what they had always believed it was and was supposed to be. Some of us might say that’s a good thing, others might say it’s a bad thing. But I think the French do understand that their vision of a west-European-centred Europe with France in a leading role is giving way to a much broader Europe in which they will be less influential – and there was a protest, that was certainly part of the debate. That said; I think the result of this debate will be to further marginalize France in Europe, that France’s European credentials have been tarnished. Next time a French leader looks at a Polish leader and says, ‘You are not a good European’, he or she can reply, ‘I could have passed a referendum in my country, and you couldn’t pass it in yours.’ So I think that even though that was part of the motivation, the consequence is going to be France having to make this adjustment to the fact that the French vision is not prevailing in Europe, there is a different vision prevailing. 

In the Dutch debate, the democracy deficit it seems to me…it was not a big factor in the French debate…The French have a very strong centralized political system domestically; they don’t have the democracy debate about French domestic politics and they didn’t have one about European politics. The Dutch political vision and culture is different and the sense that they hadn’t been listened to, that they wanted the chance to express their frustration, was a much more powerful factor.

Enlargement does feature on the list, but I put it at third or fourth place, as opposed to one or two. And part of this is the EU becoming something different to what we grew up believing it would be…it has  become something different, but the dichotomy is that the enlargement, or consolidation, of the European Union has been one of the unqualified historical strategic successes. The fact that Europe today is more peaceful, democratic and secure than at any time in one hundred years, and that enlargement is a direct part of that success – this is an unquestioned strategic success for the EU, and it just strikes outsiders as a bit odd at times that the success story has become part of the crisis, that people aren’t more proud of what has been accomplished; that there is no threat of war in Europe on the continent anymore, that for the first time Europe’s children have grown up not worrying about war – that wasn’t inevitable, that wasn’t inevitable. 

Somehow, the absence of a bad thing – becomes a hard sell in the long-run…? 

If you had asked me the day before the referenda, do I want them to pass, I would have said, Yes, simply because I think all the uncertainties and all the costs that Europe would pay and the United States would pay are too large. But the voters have voted and we are where we are; now the debate becomes, how will Europe reconstruct itself and what kind of new coalition of countries with what vision of Europe will emerge from this mess? This will sound very American, but in every crisis there’s an opportunity, and the opportunity here is to reconstruct a vision of Europe that is more connected with voters, that starts to address these questions – and that in a few years time we’re on a much more positive and sturdy historical trajectory. That will depend on what the leaders of member states do and are capable of. 

Even educated people may not have the strategic outlook on enlargement you’ve described. They don’t necessarily care about that dimension – they care about the feeling of what the EU once was, and now it’s transforming and looks set to transform even more. How can the political leaders of Europe take that into account? 

I think it would be a fundamental mistake if the political leaders in Europe did not listen to what their societies are saying, and that those leaders who supposed they just had to do a better selling job are being laughed at in many circles. I think that there is truth in the argument that the answers to questions that have come up in this debate – be it challenges of globalization, economic growth or making Europe stronger so that it can deal with these problems – do lie in more integration. The answer to a lot of these problems has to come from a stronger, more cohesive Europe; you can’t answer these problems on a national level anymore. So I think that when we work our way through this public debate, a lot of people will conclude that the answers have to be in Europe coming together with a rather more cohesive set of strategies, not going backward. But that view has to grow organically, and not just be a couple of leaders saying, ‘Well, they didn’t get it’, as that would be a pretty stupid thing to do.

On enlargement, I think it’s up to European leaders, countries, and societies to decide what the European Union is, and if at the end of the day a majority of European populations don’t want to enlarge further, it won’t happen. That said, I would hope that a fuller debate of this issue would also highlight the advantages, the costs of not enlarging, the cost of a potentially unstable, more nationalist…I believe that if you go through a rational pro’s and con’s of this debate, a lot of people would conclude that it’s a good thing to keep this perspective open because it’s one of the best ways for the EU to preserve stability in its neighborhood, on its periphery, and the costs of not doing so…at the moment the debate on Turkey assumes that there’s no cost by saying no; I don’t believe that’s the case either and, to come back to the question of identity because I think it’s a fundamental one, as an American of European decent – but someone who’s still an American in his melting-pot, multicultural belief in the power of integration, assimilation and immigration – I think many of us look at Europe today and say, if there’s one problem that Europe faces, it is immigration and integration. 

If I had one wish to help Europe, it would be the successful integration and assimilation of immigrants into European societies. If you can’t solve that problem, I worry about the political health of your societies, the economic health of your societies, long before we get to the question of Turkey’s membership; and the two are becoming linked. The debates taking place in France, in Denmark and in the Netherlands – I don’t claim to understand them all but as an American intellectual this is the most interesting part of what’s happening in Europe today, and if European societies can’t figure out how to do this I fear that you’re really in trouble. 

I think America’s historical track record, while not perfect, is much stronger in the integration of immigrants. I’m not sure how much we can offer you in our experience; you have to find your own answers but you’re going to have to answer those questions domestically in order to deal with the Turkey question in foreign policy terms. We look at Europe and your need for labour, for millions of people to come in to sustain the welfare state, to sustain the economy, and we ask where they are going to come from? You’re not going to reverse European fertility rates, you’re going to have to import labour and people from some place, and where are they going to come from? That’s why this question of your ability to assimilate Muslim and Arab – Turkey’s not an Arab country, but it’s basically a secular Muslim country – is key to reassuring people that their countries and their lifestyles are not going to change. 

With Turkey, if you strip away the rhetoric it’s about three key questions: it’s about culture, it’s about power, and it’s about money. It’s about culture because this is a question of, Can the Europe that we know today assimilate the countries like Turkey? I as an American say you have to, you have no choice; but that’s a separate question. It’s about money because it’s about are we going to pay them money to help bring Turkey up to EU standards? I say that’s a matter of negotiation; if and when the Turks join the EU they will receive far less money than previous new members ever received and they’ll receive far less than they want to receive, but that’s a matter of negotiation. 

And then there’s a question of what I call power: if it was a country of 12 million people would we be having the debate? No. I once had a leading Christian Democratic friend say to me, ‘But just imagine if Turkey were in the EU – they’d have more votes in the European Parliament than we would have!’ And that was obviously unacceptable to him. So it’s really a question of who sits at the table and how much power does Turkey have. Let’s be honest, part of this is about the fact that Turkey is a big country that will be among the four or five leading powers in Europe if it becomes a full member of the EU. Each of those – culture, power, money – touches different nerves in the European body of politics; and some of them are negotiable but some of them are an acceptance of a different political power alignment that will emerge if Turkey is accepted into the EU. 

But in the end you cannot negotiate the fact that there will be more Turks than Germans in fifteen years? 

No, but you may think the reality is that the Turks will accede to the political role in stages over time if this happens; I mean, if you look at the Nice Treaty and the way EU arrangements and voting works, it is not always fully democratic and there will obviously be a negotiation about how Turkey is represented as well. But the fact remains Turkey will be in the Bundesliga [the top-flight of the German football league] of Europe; it’s not Estonia, it’s not a small country, it’s a big country that will have considerable weight and that is also part of the debate.

Dr. Asmus is a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs to former US Secretary of State Madaleine Albright. 


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