The presidential elections in France will open on April 22, and the candidates’ campaigning explainably holds the attention of watchers in Ankara. The immediate future of the ties between Turkey and France largely depends on the outcome of the poll, plus their reverting to normalcy can become a prologue to a warming of Turkey’s relations with the entire EU.

One of the two key contenders whose duel currently defines the intrigue in Paris – the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy – is an outspoken opponent of admitting Turkey to the alliance, whereas his main rival – socialist Francois Hollande – calls for a flexible approach to the issue.

Sarkozy did make attempts to dilute his anti-Turkish rhetoric by throwing in assurances that Turkey ranks high on the French foreign-policy agenda and tends to stress that France’s objections to the Turkish Eurointegration bid should not cast a shadow over the otherwise deep and promising relations between the two countries.

The talk evokes predictable skepticism in Ankara, and the French-Turkish dialog eventually ended in stalemate. At the moment, no bilateral relations within NATO are nearly as strained as those between Paris and Ankara [1].

Further complicating the situation, in 2011 the French Senate passed legislation criminalizing the denial of the genocide against Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire (the fact that the genocide took place was officially recognized in Paris even earlier, back in 2001).

Turkey is known to have a thin skin to the issue, and the Senate voted for the bill after brushing off Ankara’s warnings that it would take serious measures against France in response.

There had been periods of time when Turkey suspended military and economic cooperation with France over the genocide charges which it has been persistently rejecting, and last year Turkish premier R. Erdogan fired back by accusing France of a genocide against the Algerian population [2].

There is hope in Ankara that if Hollande prevails Turkey will be presented with new, albeit still limited, opportunities to advance its interests in Europe. Even if Hollande merely adopts a position of neutrality towards Turkey’s EU membership request, that would already be a breakthrough when seen against the habitual grim background.

The negotiations on the admission of Turkey have remained practically frozen since the summer of 2010. Hollande, it must be noted, says that as of today opening Europe’s doors to Turkey would be a premature step and, among other reasons, cites Ankara’s refusal to admit to the Armenian genocide.

Moreover, Hollande expressed support for the initiative of France’s Armenian diaspora to open in Paris a museum dedicated to the 1915 Armenian genocide. If, hypothetically, he wins the elections, Ankara would be confronted with a challenging dilemma. On the one hand, for Turkey Hollande’s presidency would mark a rare chance to get heard in Europe.

On the other, there is no doubt that the debates and spats over the divisive issue – whether or not the genocide took place – will continue into the foreseeable future. Turkey simply cannot buy the reanimation of economic and military cooperation projects at the cost of recognizing the 1915 genocide – for the country, the fear of the imminent ideological damage far outweighs the corresponding financial losses.

As an aspiring regional leader, Turkey has to be constantly mindful of its international image, which the genocide-related disputes heavily scar. At least one thing is clear – from Turkey’s perspective, Sarkozy represents a hostile political force, and Hollande appears to be a potentially friendly figure.

The relations between France and Turkey become better readable if the impact of those between France and Germany on the context is taken into account. Geographically, France seems destined for European leadership, but the same is true of Germany, its traditional rival.

If, for example, Berlin takes to building a partnership with Moscow, Paris does whatever it takes to derail the process. Sarkozy will never subscribe to the Paris-Berlin-Moscow triad, his formula being Paris-London-Washington.

Tensions between Germany and France surfaced a few years ago when Paris floated a plan for the Union for the Mediterranean, an international partnership bringing together the EU and the Mediterranean countries.

Not being a part of the Mediterranean region, Germany was visibly worried that the role of a link between the EU and North Africa would earn France the status of Europe’s leader.

The new partnership could open to France unlimited access to North Africa’s lucrative gas fields, the trans-Mediterranean infrastructures, the ambitious African development projects, and generally to the trade and security spheres of the extensive region in question.

Berlin thus faced a risk of being outraced, and only the combination of vigorous German diplomacy and France’s ability to adapt to circumstances helped ease the brewing tensions as Germany was invited to join in.

Overall, the French policy in Europe is centered around wrestling for leadership coupled to preventing Germany from imposing political limitations on Paris. Considering that Germany and Turkey have always been fairly close politically, the relations between Paris and Ankara were doomed to stay at a low point.

Turkey’s administration boasts that by 2023 – the centenary of the Turkish Republic – the country will gain a line in the list of the world’s top ten powers. It becomes a straightforward guess at this point why Berlin which used to back Turkey recently sided with Paris in keeping Turkey out of the EU.

First, accommodating the Turkish economy which is not exactly in great shape will not be easy. Cheap Turkish consumer goods are already flooding Europe, and if the country is issued an entry ticket to the EU, the market balance may be endangered.

Secondly, Turkey would become the EU champion in terms of the density of the population, and, importantly, its identity is Islam. Absorbing a Muslim population of such proportions would irreversibly transform the European demographic and religious landscapes. Pope Benedict XVI asked why Vienna had to be protected from the Turks in the middle ages if these days they are welcome in Europe.

The admission of Turkey would expose the EU to a tide of Muslim migration, boost the share of Muslims in Europe, and stretch is borders all the way to the chronically unstable Iraq. The scenario is beyond means for Brussels economically, politically, and ideologically – the epoch when Europe was able to digest large numbers of novices is long over.

As for the European heavyweights – Berlin and Paris – neither welcomes a competitor aspiring to make it to the top league by 2023.

Regardless of who wins the presidential elections in France, a long period of uncertainty awaits the relations between the country and Turkey. On one hand, France is aware of the erosion of its status in global politics and could benefit from having an ally in the Middle East, a strategic region important to the world’s political future. Turkey, a strong player contesting Iran’s sway over the region, surely could act as such.

On the other hand, integrating Turkey means allowing it to compete for leadership in Europe. This is the reason why Sarkozy staunchly opposes Turkey’s EU membership bid and suggests instead that the country suffice with decent relations with France, which is not exactly what Ankara has on its wish list.

It must be noted that the buildup of Turkey’s grievances against the EU makes it unlikely that the country will steer an anti-Russian course in foreign politics. One can safely expect Turkey shut out of Europe to be friendlier to Russia than Turkey integrated into the EU would have been, and the current situation offers considerable opportunity for rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara.

Vladislav GULEVICH | Strategic Culture Foundation




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