Europe Must Not Turn Its Back on Turkey at Such a Pivotal Moment

Article excerpt

A VIVID painting in the British Ambassador's house in Ankara depicts one of his early 18th century predececessors, Charles Wortley Montague, paying court to the Grand Vizier in Constantinople. The Briton is perched uncomfortably on a plain, hard- backed chair, looking up respectfully at the Sultan's chief minister, who is relaxing cross legged on a luxuriant settee. There is not a shred of doubt who is the supplicant and who the man with the power.

Turkey no longer presides over a great empire. Yet it's hard not to see a parallel, however imperfect, in the stream of international visitors sitting at the feet of her new leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Suddenly everyone wants to know the man whose Islamist party won a landslide last month against a coalition fatally weakened by corruption and economic collapse.

Most prominent this week among the suitors, of course, has been the US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, here to plead for military co- operation in a possible war in Iraq about which Turkey remains distinctly nervous. Turkey, in turn, is already driving a hard bargain, well on the way to securing guarantees of hundreds of millions of US dollars and against a new Kurdish state emerging in Northern Iraq if Saddam Hussein is toppled.

Nor is that all. For the hawkish Mr Wolfowitz has been at his most vocal in supporting Turkey's most cherished foreign policy goal - membership of the EU. It's tempting for some in Europe to think that because Mr Wolfowitz is pushing this so hard and because the British Government, the US's principal ally on Iraq, are the leading EU champions of Turkish entry, that there must be something wrong with the idea or that it is merely a short term ramp to get round a difficult military corner. Tempting and utterly wrong. The stakes are much higher than that.

While it may be hard to admit, Mr Wolfowitz happens to be right on this. The decisions the Copenhagen EU summit will take at the end of next week on Turkey may prove pivotal to relations between what we call the West and the Muslim world. This is a historic moment and not just for the EU.

First, a little detail. Thanks to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, not to mention Lord Hannay, the Government's special envoy on Cyprus, there has never been a better opportunity since the mid- Seventies - and may never be again - to settle the too long neglected conflict between the two peoples of that bitterly divided island. The UN-brokered deal, which offers Greek and Turkish Cypriots two autonomous sectors within a lightly federal structure, has much to offer both groups. The hope, by no means certain of fulfilment, is that with the support of Greece and Turkey the two local communities can be persuaded next week to sign up to its principles.

As it happens both Turkey and Greece, as the government of each well realises, have an incentive to persuade, respectively, the stubborn Rauf Denktash and his Greek Cypriot counterpart George Clerides to sign the crucial pre-amble to the agreement next week. For Turkey, an end to the long running problem would remove one more excuse for the EU to block its application for membership. And a progressive Greek government which actually wants good political and economic relations with the big Eastern neighbour with which it has quarrelled for so long, will support Turkey's EU application provided Cyprus can be settled.

But Cyprus has now become inextricably linked with a much bigger picture. It's a near-certainty that the issue of Cyprus and that of a Turkish EU application date will go to the wire in the familiar nothing-is-agreed- until-everything-is-agreed mode of EU summits. …