Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Greece misreads the new reality

The other night I met with some old friends from Athens. Some of them are linked with the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and keen followers of Turkey’s reshaping foreign policy. For years they have been sincerely engaged in overcoming obstacles which have made Greek-Turkish relations problematic in many areas.

The main topic of the conversation was -- inevitably -- Cyprus. They asked me, in a concerned tone, whether Ankara would take new steps to help speed up the process. They meant, naturally, opening Turkey’s air and seaports to Greek Cypriot aircraft and vessels. Because, the argument went on, Turkey could not be a credible regional power if it went on denying these steps. And, of course, it will put the entire accession process for EU membership into jeopardy.
The question and the related argument is not new. They were based on the regular presumption that Turkey is as keen as, say, five years ago, to hurry into full membership. They were rather outdated in their formulations: They displayed a simple equation between the implementation of the Ankara Protocol and a possible cheering within the EU to open up the gates to full membership with immediate effect. Last, they were had a lack of a fresh reading into what sort of shape Ankara has already been taking in today’s foreign policy.

I may have provoked my dear friends with my direct responses. I countered that EU membership in the minds of the people here has lost much of its glamour and support has now fallen to around 40 percent. What the common man and woman on the street generally believe is that their country is misunderstood or ignored fully because of a failure by Europeans to understand the meaning of changes and the objectives maintained for democratization. The fatigue is endorsed by the continued economic success here, and the turbulence in financial management of the union. People here see a Europe with no bold and visionary leadership, with increasing xenophobia, with a worrisome contempt for Islam and chronic myopia in its foreign policy.

The notion that keeps developing here is the “Turkey does not belong in Europe, let us resist membership fully” motto among some political actors and segments of European society that is now turning into an obsession. The open tolerance for anti-Turkey and anti-Turkish sentiments, often bordering on archaic acts of racism (in member countries such as the Netherlands and Bulgaria), automatically awakens similar sentiments in this country as well.

So, I suggested to my Greek friends that they should adopt new ways of thinking. The more prosperous and self-confident Turkey is -- as seems to be case now -- the more independently it will reason and act. Can Turkey live with the Cyprus problem for a long time? Yes, it can. The wealthier it is, the easier it can finance North Cyprus.

Yes, but what about EU negotiations and how will it affect security in the Eastern Mediterranean? It is Ankara’s policy to sit at the EU table and support the Turkish Cypriot position. In no case, the towels will have to be thrown in.

If a solution to the conflict and regional security are in the interests of Greece and Cyprus, it should be for the whole union as well. So, if this premise is logical, hitting the ball in Turkey’s court and expecting other sides to do nothing is old thinking. The correct question to be asked is, “What can we do that we have not done so far?”

There are two crucial, principal points for reflection: First, the EU must stop approaching Ankara, acting “undecided” about the prospect of full membership. Mixed messages, often aimed at domestic consumption, but also based on extreme prejudice, only make the Turkey-EU dialogue worse. Alienating Turkey and its people will have far-reaching consequences; it will not add to the strength of the EU.

The second has to do with the role of Greece in the Cyprus issue. Ever since Cyprus became -- with its chronic problems -- a full member of the EU, Athens has barely done anything to encourage Nicosia to work constructively toward a solution. It stood in the background saying: “This is their problem. They must solve it.” This was an act of hypocrisy because Athens archaically believed that the appetite for EU membership would lead Ankara to make unilateral concessions. But Ankara has shown that outside engagement can change parameters: the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government boldly made Rauf DenktaƟ leave his post to Mehmet Ali Talat in 2004. It showed that when “main lands” become involved, the process can raise hopes.

It is time for Athens to stop the hypocrisy and adopt a new language. It is much weaker on the position to dictate conditions for Turkey. Greece, as is well known, does not enjoy a positive reputation within the bloc at the moment. Because of its tremendous economic mismanagement that threatens the EU, it has an issue of profound mistrust.

One way of repairing its image could easily be through engagement in Cyprus. Lifting the embargo on the North and opening of the ports must be in synch. The more in cooperation and pragmatic Athens and Ankara are on the issue, the stronger the prospects for regional security and a settlement on the island. Then they can make sure that it is understood clearly within the confused and prejudiced EU circles.

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