TCS Daily


Turkey Plays Chicken

By Evgeny Morozov - June 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Europe's leaders met last week in Brussels for another series of discussions about EU energy policy. To stimulate their debate, the European Commission had earlier joined ranks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and released a special five-page paper entitled "An External Policy to Serve Europe's Energy Interests: Facing External Energy Risks". They propose several actions to improve relations with key energy supplier, consumer and transit countries.

Several things stand out in particular. For the first time the EU publicly recognized its reliance on non-EU transit countries like Ukraine or Turkey, quietly proposing to establish more links with them. Secondly, the paper is probably the first step towards aligning the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) with its callow energy policy; it openly talks about using CFSP for "pursuing our common objective of securing reliable flows of affordable and environmentally sustainable energy". This will pave the way for a more sensible energy policy, bringing it where it belongs, i.e. under the CFSP pillar.

Yet the EU's next steps went totally against the paper's recommendations. Its increasing awareness of Turkey's strategic importance was blurred by its careless statements on the prospect of Turkish accession to the EU, spouted throughout all of June. Thus, just a few days after the Commission called for increased cooperation with Turkey on energy, it releaseed another report strikingly different from the first one.

The second report accused the Turkish government of not making enough progress on expected reforms and speculating about the possible halt to accession this year (among other things, it highlighted such traditionally problematic issues as the lack of the civilian control over the military, the great need to protect the freedom of expression, and the rights of the Kurds). A stand-off over the status of Cyprus fully exposed the EU's confused stance on the issue, further aggravating fears in Turkey and elsewhere that Brussels is not serious about its commitments.

By highlighting its dependence on Turkey-as-an-energy partner and distancing itself from Turkey-as-an-EU member, Brussels is playing with fire. Quite naively, EU diplomats believe that Turkey's energy policy will never correlate with the EU's enlargement aspirations. So, in their eyes, Turkey will remain a reliable energy partner, regardless of whether it is a member. A greater geopolitical folly is hard to come across.

Turkey has sensed the EU's vulnerability and inconsistency and is eager to exploit it. It's in no hurry to join the South Eastern Europe Energy Pact, an initiative spearheaded by the EU to cement the existing energy ties in the region. According to a report from the Associated Press, "the [Pact] will create a supply route for natural gas from the Middle East and the Caspian region to the EU, broadening Western Europe's range of suppliers, and let international lenders such as the World Bank fund upgrades and expand southeast European electricity networks". Turkey is the only South Eastern European country not to sign it (and the most important one).

Turkey is also doing more business with the EU's adversaries, bolstering its ties with Russia and, surprisingly, Israel. Russia was the first one to realize how important Turkey will be in its energy battle with the West and will not give it up that easy. There have been 6 meetings between Russian and Turkish officials in the past 18 months alone. Russian President Vladimir Putin also sounds optimistic about the future of the Russia-Turkey energy partnership. What he said during the visit of Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan to Russia in June 2005 sums us Russia's position pretty well:

"We are ready to build large underground gasholders in the territory of Turkey, ready to enter into gas-distributing networks privatization, ready to use already existing as pipes in Turkey and to take part in the construction of new ones, to transport our power resources through the territory or Turkey into third countries, including Southern Europe"

What is Turkey's own leverage over the EU? There are nine oil and nine gas pipelines either working or being constructed in Turkey at the moment, including the much-talked about Nabucco pipeline, which is a joint project run primarily by Austria's OMV and aimed at transporting methane from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe through Turkey. Turkey is just teeming with EU's energy companies and bidding contracts.

The EU may be a slow learner, but the Ukrainian crisis was a clarion call: Brussels should quickly embrace the vast opportunities Turkey offers by putting it on a fast track to membership. By snubbing Turkey, the EU will only worsen its own position in the region.

While reliving the good old days of "he is son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch" might not be very pleasant for the EU, its other alternative is to overpay for Russian energy and make concessions to its geopolitical demands. In this environment, the EU cannot afford sending mixed signals to Ankara. All of the human rights concerns and the Cyprus issue are, of course, important—but they can and should be solved only once Turkey is firmly guaranteed a place within the EU.

The reality is that EU will have to deal with Turkey, whether it wants it or not. The concerns of the Austrians or the Germans might still be strong—and yet not strong enough to overshadow their energy fears. Nobody so far has asked them whether they would prefer to have Turkey and Ukraine in and gas in, or Turkey and Ukraine out, and gas out. If plotted against energy concerns, their fears about the enlargement might not be of any significance.

Furthermore, the EU's conviction that Turkey will remain faithful to its energy commitments regardless of the EU's commitments to accession is precarious, ungrounded, and disregards Brussels' bad history in securing its energy supplies. To think that Turkey will not use its energy hub status—which Brussels itself touts as essential to its future—as a bargaining chip for the negotiations with EU is a sign of geopolitical myopia.

Sooner or later, the question about Turkey's membership will boil down to mere horse-trading, where the disillusioned Turks will just need to evaluate the energy offers they get from Russians and Israelis and compare them with the condescending empty promises of the EU. And as time goes by, the EU's reliance on Turkey will only be increasing—so will Turkey's clout over the EU, provided, of course, that it still has any interest in joining the club. This interest might dwindle sooner than Brussels expects. It'd better move first.

The author is a TCS contributing writer. He blogs at www.sharpandsound.com.

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