Einar Wigen: should Norway be a model for Turkey's accession?

By Gizem Ozturk Erdem | 27 October 2010

To quote this document: Gizem Ozturk Erdem, “Einar Wigen: should Norway be a model for Turkey's accession?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 27 October 2010, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/945, displayed on 08 December 2022

A new perspective has emerged in the current negociations for Turkey's accession to the EU. Egemen Bagis, the Chief EU Negociator, now refers to the "Norwegian model": in case of a "yes" from the EU, a national referendum would take place in Turkey and have the last word upon the accession... Is this model relevant?  Einar Wigen, a Norwegian researcher, provides us with an in-depth analysis of the matter.

The German Marshall Fund (GMF, an American policy institute) stated that Turkey might prefer not to join the European Union (EU) like Norway after the EU membership negotiations are concluded. Turkey stated recently that regarding its relations with the EU, any formula apart from full membership is out of the question. Turkish officials increasingly refer to the Norwegian model. The Norwegian model, first mentioned by the President of the Republic of Turkey, Abdullah Gul and later by the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is also referred to by the Chief EU Negotiator, Egemen Bagis, who said during a meeting in Brussels that after the negotiations are concluded, “Turkey might hold a referendum and that Turkish public might say no to EU membership. “

Is it relevant to compare Norway, a country with a high income and a population of 4.5 million people, with Turkey, a country with a low income and a population of 70 million people? How do you interpret these statements about the Norwegian Model?

There are good reasons for comparing the two countries, though I don’t think the conclusion would be equal treatment from the EU’s side. I don’t see how Turkey would be able to obtain this type of association with the European Union.

First and foremost, there is a question as to how long Norway itself will be able to continue having this system. It is not very popular, as it imposes many regulations that the Norwegians would not otherwise have had. There is a sense that we have to adhere to rules that we did not participate in making, and so the EEA agreement (European Economic Area – which is the formalisation of Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland’s association with the EU) is unpopular both with the pro-Europeans and the nationalists, for lack of a better term. In Norway there is now talk of a “Swiss model”.  Paradoxically, the so-called “Swiss model” is seen as too good to be realistic for Norway. To clarify, Switzerland’s agreements with the EU is more on a issue-by-issue basis, rather than blanket incorporation of EU law into national law. The Swiss accept far less intervention in their domestic politics than does Norway. Norway has to implement everything that the EU decides, without having any voice or vote in Brussels. There is a token veto power, but the Norwegian government is afraid that using it would mean the end of the whole agreement. This system seems rather fragile. I would rather recommend the Turks to look to the Swiss for inspiration in their relationship with the EU.

I interpret these statements as a further underlining of the double standards used by the EU when dealing with Turkey. And I think that Norway is a great example of that. The EU accepts Norway even as Norway rejects the EU. If Turkey was to reject the EU, it would be a very sensitive matter in both the European and the Turkish opinions. First of all, how do you legitimise EU rules and regulations to a population who has voted “no” to having them in the first place? In Turkey, it would not go down well to have the EU overrule domestic opinion on some sensitive point. On the European side, offering Turkey membership and the Turks turning it down would come as a major insult. I think such a rejection would be final, and not open for a different kind of Turkish integration with the EU.

It may also be a way of saying to the EU, “we know that full membership is unattainable, but let’s have the second-best thing”. I am not sure whether “Norwegian model” here actually means becoming a member of the EEA. On the EU side, I am not sure that the EEA is considered worse than full membership. Norway is getting away with paying far less in membership contribution and gets the same access to European markets. So from the EU’s point of view, the EEA is just a stepping stone to full membership.

A further important aspect here is the Schengen Agreement. European agreements are a patchwork. Norway is party to many of them, and in some sense we are more integrated than certain member countries, though without representation in the European Parliament. The Schengen Agreement, which I think would be the most useful agreement for Turkey to join, is the one making Europe into one passport area. While Britain, which is an EU member is not party to this agreement, Norway is. So a German can travel to Norway (outside the EU) without a passport, whereas he has to bring his passport if he wishes to go to Britain. For Turks, it is not a matter of whether or not he or she has to bring a passport, but rather how many working days have to be spent in order to obtain a visa for entry to the EU. There are specific agreements for those possessing special passports (diplomats, officers and those working for the state), which ensure much smoother travel. Lowering the barriers to travel is a very important issue for Turks. But this could be solved with a simple treaty on visa-free travel or simpler visa application procedures.

After the crisis between Israel and Turkey, many articles, both in the European and Turkish press, stated that Turkey has turned its face to the East. How do you evaluate these analyses?

I think they are a short-hand for something much more mundane. Turkey is not turning this way or that. Turkey is using all the opportunities that arise in the immediate neighbourhood. Iran is being boycotted, and so there are plenty of economic opportunities there for Turkish businesses. I interpret the political overtures made vis-à-vis Iran as a way of opening the door for Turkish businesses. Whether this is going to succeed is a completely different matter. That it also creates leverage against the EU or the West, which have been afraid of “losing Turkey” since the mid-1990s, is just added value. Furthermore, I think that these are also an attempt to make partnerships with countries that treat Turkey as an equal partner, because I think all Turks are sick of having to wait for visas and being treated as second-rate human beings.

As for the Gaza flotilla crisis this summer, I think it is very much a matter of political style. Turkish and Israeli politicians are allowed and expected to show more emotions than European politicians. If the Swedish prime minister had acted the way Erdogan did, it would signify the absolute low point in the relationship with the opposite country. Actually, it would be unthinkable and undoable. For Turkish politicians, and especially the straight-from-the-gut, grass-roots type of politician like Erdogan, it comes naturally. I don’t think we’d see this from old-style politicians such as the late Bülent Ecevit. It may of course be more an issue of personal style than any group trait.

However, I think it is important to point out something that Turkish diplomats in Tel Aviv said after the Davos crisis last year, namely that everything looked completely different from where they sat. In the government district of Ankara you still hear Hebrew being spoken on the street, and there are still four daily flights between Istanbul and Tel Aviv. The electorate may be the most anti-Israeli in the world, and Israeli tourists may have stopped travelling to Turkey, but I don’t think cooperation will stop overnight.

Turkey has been trying to reach conciliation in the discussion between Western Countries and Iran concerning nuclear weapons. Do you think that Turkey’s attempts are enough to prevent a conflict that is likely to occur in the future? According to the statements of Ahmet Davutoglu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, “Turkish foreign policy doctrine is zero problems and maximum cooperation with its neighbours”. Do you consider this approach as a realistic one, especially as far as the Middle East is concerned? 

The approach is of course not realistic in the sense that a political scientist would use the concept. “Zero problems” is a catch-phrase for a wider set of efforts, not a particular policy. And no, you cannot have zero problems with countries that have a mutual conflict. Both will try to enrol you in their project. Having no problems with Iran and Israel at the same time, and with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Russia and Georgia, is not a logical possibility. They will always expect more of Turkey than Turkey will be able to deliver without offending the opposing party.

On a much more positive note, I see zero problems as the opposite of a divide and rule strategy. So rather than using one opponent to weaken another and come out on top itself, Turkey now tries to downplay the differences between the positions of the antagonists in the region. That is very laudable, and in the sense that it is in Turkey’s own interest to do so, it is realistic. Turkey will never again be the sole creator of peace in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus at the same time. But that doesn’t mean that it should not try. Zero problems is in some sense a rejection of “zero-sum games”, in that it is an internalisation of the European ethos that cooperation produces something more than splitting what was already there. Cooperation produces something more than what each party brings to the table. You don’t have to go very far before this is not the modus operandi, neither in time, space or political affiliation. For an Azeri politician, cooperation merely means a re-distribution of goods. Some gain, others loose, and the sum stays the same. So it is in Armenia. If Turkey is gains something from an agreement with Armenia, it must mean that Armenia looses equally. Politicians in Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq almost all behave in this manner. And this was also the mentality of Turkish politicians not long ago. Indeed, look at the main Turkish opposition parties over the past eight years – you’ll see a lot of this. You can say that there is a Europeanisation of how Turkish politicians relate to the issue of cooperation.

Having mentioned all of this, it is worth pointing out that the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs does have some problems in following up all the initiatives that Davutoglu is proposing. It is about a sixth of the size of the German MFA, and you can just imagine the workload that is being put on them through having all these initiatives laid on them. If I am not mistaken, they lack much of the specific capacity to deal with the things that they are dealing with. Especially as regards Armenian politics, there is a clear asymmetry of capabilities. There is very little knowledge of Armenian political affairs, and next to no Armenian language competence among Turkish diplomats or policy makers. On the other hand, the Armenians have their whole bureaucracy and state institutions geared towards understanding and dealing with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey cannot sacrifice all other competence in the pursuit of one particular issue. Dealing with Israel, the US, Russia, Europe on both the EU and the national levels, Iran, Greece and so forth takes a lot of different competence. And the Turkish MFA only has parts of it.

As regards Iran’s possible nuclear weapons, I don’t think Turkey’s efforts are enough. But then again, I think that the consensus that exists in Iranian politics on this issue is almost impossible to break. Turkey can be lauded for trying, but I don’t think it will amount to much. What is paradoxical, though, is that while Turkey aims to take a leadership role in the Middle East, the Turkish population is not at all worried that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. This makes sense in that Iranian nuclear weapons will not be directed at Turkey. However, Iran, acting under a “nuclear umbrella” is likely to displace Turkey from the Middle Eastern political arena. In terms of a regional leadership role, Turkey has everything to lose from Iranian nuclear weapons. But the threat is not existential, the country will merely be relegated to the position of Syria or Jordan in terms of regional influence. I wonder whether this thought has crossed the minds of Turkish politicians. {mospagebreak}

Your book, named Turkey and the Concept of Europe: A historical concept has been published recently and if I am not mistaken, it is written in the scope of thesis. You stated that “Turkey has changed from being an Islamic Empire antagonistic to Christian states to a secular nation-state, a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership. This involves not only a significant shift in foreign policy towards Europe, but also a reshaping of Ottoman and Turkish identity”. Could you please describe your attitude towards this shift?

Let’s say that this is the meta-narrative that I frame my analysis in. I am giving a short-hand for the momentous transformation that has taken place over the past three hundred years or so. I think that we as analysts focus too closely on the here-and-now. We keep asking the questions “is the West losing Turkey?” or “is Turkey turning East?” as if these are something new. They are not. The movement itself is a key part of Turkish identity. As early as 1830, the Ottoman Grand Admiral Halil Paşa wrote that: “I am back from a visit to Russia. On my return, I became more than ever convinced that, if we are further delayed from imitating Europe, we shall be left with no alternative to the obligation of going back to Asia.” Turkish, or rather Ottoman state identity was intertwined with the idea of a movement from East to West as early as 1830.

I believe that Turkey has been “becoming European” for so long that it is a central part of its national idea. If you look at the verbs used to describe Turkey, both within and without, they almost always end in the Turkish equivalent of –ise, denoting a change from one condition to another. I think that Turkishness is in the transformation, not in what was or what comes. For those who govern Turkey, Turkey is a Westernising country, a modernising country, a democratising country, a Europeanising country. It is never Western, modern, democratic, European and so forth. The meaning of these processes change, but the point is the same, they always denote a kind of “not-quite-there” attitude. It is at the same time a sign of insecurity over one’s own identity and a desire to become something “better”. I think this may pass, and Turkey becoming more secure about its place in the world.

If you ask for my personal attitude to this shift, I’d coquettishly have to answer that as a researcher I have no feelings for my empirical data. Whether Turkey is an Islamic empire or a secular nation-state is of minor importance to me as a researcher. As a European, I suppose I am happy that Turkey has come this far, and would want to welcome our Turkish friends to the club. But then, since I am a Norwegian and not part of the European club myself, I’d say that Turkey does not need Europe. Europe will wake up one day and see that Turkey was a big opportunity it missed. Turkey has everything that Europe lacks; a young, hard-working population, unexploited resources and a dynamism that looks to the future rather than the past for its inspiration.

Nowadays, the evaluations and comments made upon EU and Turkey relations are towards what Turkey would gain from EU membership. What do you think the European Union would gain from the possible membership of Turkey?

The European Union would gain a young, hard-working population. It would gain influence in new regions. It would solidify and consolidate the spread of democracy, which I think again could act as a stabiliser and a carrot for countries in the Caucasus. The EU would be able to defuse both the Cyprus conflict and the Turkey-Greece conflict, not that the latter has had much importance as of late. Last but not least, the EU would be able to show that it is not a club of rich, Christian nations past their prime, and that it actually has principles that are worth sticking to and fighting for. Then again, I think that the EU would lose much of its leverage over Turkey. The EU has much better instruments for disciplining candidate countries than member countries. Member countries who do not adhere to the rules go unpunished, just look at Greece. Greece is given a gigantic rescue package rather than being punished. In that sense, I am afraid that Turkish politicians may start acting like the Greek in terms of adherence to EU regulations if Turkey were to become a member. 


Einar Wigen is a research fellow at the Department of International Politics at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). He holds an MA in peace and conflict resolution from the European Centre for Peace Studies in Austria, and is doctoral fellow at Kultrans and the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the university of Oslo. He also holds a major in Turkish studies and has spent several research periods at Bosporus University and at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.”


The picture was taken on the website of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.