The danger of ‘Nabucco complacency’ in Turkey-EU relations

Turkey on Monday finalized the signing of the Nabucco pipeline project; perhaps one of the most important milestones in the country’s energy policy, as well as its almost half-century old European Union, or EU, vocation. The project in question (named after Giuseppe Verdi’s four-movement opera, depicting the story of the Jews fleeing the Babylonian king ‘Nebuchadnezzar’) concerns a network of natural gas pipelines connecting Azeri-Caspian natural gas to a small Austrian municipality Weiden an der March, which serves as a major energy transit point for Europe, through Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum-Ankara, and then into Bulgaria-Romania and Hungary. It is formidable in its coverage, almost 2,000 miles, as well as its capacity, 31 million cubic meters per year.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

H. Akin Unver

The project brings Turkey into the center of EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, or CFSP, as Europe’s large volume of energy demands (around 90 percent of oil and 40 percent of its total gas demand) necessitate playing diplomatic tug-of-war with potentially uncooperative countries such as Russia and Iran, bringing Turkey’s excessively used and abused ‘geo-strategic importance’ back into Europe’s policy calculations, leading to a discursive ‘re-Cold War-ization’ of Turkey’s importance to the West. In this picture, Turkey not only acts as a passageway to the Nabucco gas pipeline which provides around 30 percent of the EU’s gas demands, but it also sits at the center of a hub of foreign policy and energy interests connecting the Middle East, Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe; a situation that will have diverse implications, such as how Turkey will act with regard to the Iranian nuclear program and Russia’s energy interests materialized by Gazprom.

The strategic implications of the Nabucco agreement notwithstanding, many commentators (including some of the columnists of these pages: see for example, Mehmet Ali Birand’s ‘Turkey got closer to Europe’) evaluated this agreement within the context of Turkey’s newly gained advantage with regard to Europe’s energy policy and how this might affect the country’s almost 50 year old EU membership adventure. Turkish press appears to be overwhelmingly optimistic about the prospects of this pipeline project. Almost all of the Turkish newspapers ran an optimistic headline about the Nabucco agreement; ‘Bugün’ for example choose the title ‘Handcuff to Europe’, certain that the project will render the EU subservient to Turkey’s membership demands, while some others considered this to be ‘the agreement of the century’; only exceptions perhaps, were ‘Cumhuriyet’(which referred to the signing as ‘Troubled agreement’) and ‘Vakit’ (which ran an optimistic title, but unlike other newspapers, mentioned this event in a very small section).

Of course, the Nabucco pipeline project bestows upon Turkey considerable leverage, as well as responsibility, in its dealings with the European Union, most specifically with regard to the right-wing parties of Europe, whose discourse on Turkey’s European credentials have concentrated around the statements made by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. Turkey’s half-century European Union vocation reveals that while European left-wing parties’ position on Turkey’s membership has a policy dimension (not objecting Turkey’s involvement as long as it improves the situation of its Kurdish population, undertakes political-legal reform and abides closely to the Copenhagen Accession Criteria), European right-wing parties’ position takes shape along an ideological and culturalist (if not orientalist) axis that categorically reject Turkey as being a part of the European Union ‘simply because Turkey does not belong to Europe’, even though it abides to the Copenhagen criteria.

The rise of political right in Europe (perhaps as a response to the global financial crisis) materialized by the current composition of the European Parliament following June 2009 elections will undoubtedly reinforce the ideological-categorical opposition to Turkey’s EU membership. It is of course understandable that many Turks perceive Nabucco as a wild card that would break what they regard as the stubbornness of the European right and would render negotiations just and egalitarian; a position that was mirrored by a DC-based analyst as: “Geographically, Turkey is more European than Cyprus, it is wealthier than Romania, its human rights record is as good as Slovenia, and it’s not that much bigger than Poland. So what’s the problem?”

Notwithstanding the leverage that Nabucco provides, Turkey’s EU membership policy has to be aware of the ‘Nabucco complacency’ and should consider two important points.

1- No matter how high of a percentage of European energy demands are met by the Nabucco pipeline, the Copenhagen criteria do not include an article which stipulates that “any country that provides 30 percent of the EU’s energy demands will be granted membership”. It is true that the project will weaken European culturalist arguments against Turkey’s membership, but at the end of the day, Turkey will or will not be granted membership depending on how well it fares with its political-legal reform and how well it meets the Copenhagen criteria. In that context, the quote by a senior Turkish official “Davos spirit will serve as the basis of Turkey’s EU negotiations” shows that Turkey may quite easily slip into the ‘Nabucco complacency’ in its dealings with Europe, hoping that its role as an energy transit country will somehow change the rules of the game and enable Turkey to become an EU member without undertaking necessary reform steps towards meeting the criteria of membership.

2- Although Nabucco will of course strengthen Turkey’s hand, if it overuses the ‘Nabucco card’ in its dealings with Europe, it will render the process vulnerable to Russian and Iranian interests, as both countries would be eager to act as a wedge between Turkey-EU relations; the former in order to gain political advantage over the EU through its energy pricing policy and the latter in order to break the economic and diplomatic isolation spearheaded by the United States by aiming to join the Nabucco network and export its gas, and also its oil. This means that, if Turkey relies overwhelmingly on the Nabucco advantage, it will unwittingly ‘Moscow-ize’ and/or ‘Tehran-ize’ its EU membership process in the long run.

As long as the AKP stays committed to the reform process and works towards meeting the EU accession criteria (not ‘because the EU wants them’, but because they bring Turkey closer to what it wants to be), Nabucco will remain an invaluable asset. Only by diligently pursuing the reform process in tandem can Nabucco become the tool of leverage that Turkish decision-makers hope it will be. Otherwise, not only Nabucco will not ensure Turkey’s EU membership by itself, it will also bring unstable and potentially problematic countries into the equation of Turkey-EU relations.