Turkey’s accession process provides a historic opportunity to bring about a transformation of the country, and of its relationship with its neighbours. But in embarking in this new enlargement in 1999, the EU seems to have taken on more than it initially believed.
A case in point : the recent vote in the French parliament in favour of criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide. The vote generated an unprecedented interest in relations between Turkey and the Armenians. It is the clearest demonstration yet that, by opening enlargement negotiations with Turkey, the EU has unwittingly taken on the Armenian issue as well.
This is a welcome crisis. In 2000, the European Commission and the council [EU member states] both curtly dismissed the entire matter as a "historical debate,"and left it off the agenda of enlargement negotiations.
They should have known better. The issue is anything but historical. The republic of Turkey - with 65 million inhabitants and the largest NATO army in Europe - has blockaded the tiny Republic of Armenia - 3 million inhabitants - for more than 13 years now, and refused to establish diplomatic relations with it.
The issue of the Armenian genocide is quite different : most of the million or so Armenians in the EU are the descendants of the survivors of the 1915 genocide, which happened on the territory of modern Turkey but which is still being denied by Ankara. Without dwelling on the point, let us note the incredibly dehumanising barbarity of the event. It marked the survivors, and their descendents, for generations.
The current blockade of Armenia lends credibility to the notion that Turkish politics are still driven by a strong anti-Armenian impulse - or so Armenians generally see it. Little has happened in past decades to prove them wrong. It is hardly surprising that Armenians in the EU are not thrilled by the prospect of Turkish accession.
The Armenian government, by contrast, pins its hopes on the beneficial transformation of Turkey which EU accession is bound to bring about.
Turkish-Armenian border At the same time, a great many Turks - businessmen in particular - would like to see the Armenian border opened. Many more aspire to opening up Turkish society and rediscovering its past. But Turkish leaders are unlikely to take the political risk of engaging with Armenia or Armenians of their own accord without some encouragement.
The EU could help. Regrettably, over the past four years, the commission not only ignored the whole problem, but helped it fester on occasion.
In 2002, Guenter Verheugen, enlargement commissioner at the time, persuaded the European Parliament not to include wording on the closed border and the genocide in one of its Turkey resolutions, arguing this would interfere with a dialogue which was ongoing in the US-sponsored Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission.
The Armenian members of this commission, who saw the dialogue was being abused as an excuse for EU inaction, soon after withdrew from it.
Yet there is another way. By addressing the question of relations between Turkey and the Armenians head on, the EU could help resolve a conflict, contribute to Turkey’s transformation and generate support for Turkey’s membership in the EU.
In the first place, the EU should contribute to the establishment of two dialogues : one governmental and one between civil societies. The first is to be conducted between the republics of Armenia and Turkey : together, the two states must decide, with EU help, on the steps required to establish diplomatic relations and open the border.
Two dialogues The second dialogue should involve Turkish society and EU citizens of Armenian descent - the Armenian Diaspora. That will be a more open and diffuse process, but it is indispensable to Turkey’s successful integration into Europe.
It must involve the rediscovery by Turkey of its own Armenian heritage, and by Armenians of a changed Turkey. Most importantly, a successful civil society dialogue will contribute to appeasing Turkey’s still strident sense of national pride, open the way to rediscovering history, and help anchor Anatolia to the European mainland.
The experience of the only existing Turkish-Armenian group, the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, should be valuable in this regard. Since 1997, against the odds, this non-governmental network has helped establish links between Armenians and Turks at all levels, and on several continents.
Both these dialogues must be sponsored and monitored by the EU. Without a credible mediator, and publicity where possible, dialogues are unlikely to produce results.
Secondly, the EU should lay down the rules with clarity. The commission has indeed relentlessly and effectively fought for freedom of expression. But Turkey is also already obliged in theory, under the current customs union agreement which entered into force in 1995, to entertain commercial relations with Armenia.
It should be made quite clear to the country that it will not join the EU until those borders are opened and trade relations fully functional.
Finally, whatever else it does, the EU should not subsidise the blockade of Armenia. The most destitute part of the Turkey is along the closed Armenian border, just 50 km from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and its million consumers. But rather than opening the border to trade with its neighbour, Turkey prefers to rely on subsidies from Brussels - €40 million this year - to sustain the local economy.
Ultimately, the EU public opinion’s acceptance of Turkish membership depends in large part on whether it feels that Europe is changing Turkey or that Turkey is changing Europe. Turkey’s Armenian question will help us find out whether the EU is still serious about its ideals.
Nicolas Tavitian is director of the Turkish Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) in the EU and also heads the Inside Europe Resource Centre, a public policy centre dedicated to EU affairs relating to Armenia.
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