France may have gotten some of what it wanted with last week's handover of sovereignty in Iraq. But that doesn't mean that French President Jacques Chirac is through tweaking his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush. The latest bone of contention? Last week's host for the NATO summit, Turkey.
At the summit, Chirac quarreled over whether NATO would help train Iraqi security forces in Iraq or not, and opposed an American proposal to deploy NATO's strike force in Afghanistan for fall elections. But he saved his most caustic comments for Bush, who had earlier promoted Turkey's admission to the European Union in a public speech. "He ventured into territory which is not his concern," Chirac said archly. "It would be like me telling the U.S. how to run its affairs with Mexico."
The last place Ankara wants to be is in the middle of a pissing match between Paris and Washington. France is key to winning the votes in December to grant Turkey a start date for negotiations on accession to the EU. Opposition among conservative lawmakers and the general population is already high, and if the embattled Chirac comes to see the issue as a vote winner at home, Turkey's bid could be doomed.
Yet the Turks themselves are more sanguine. The day after his critique, Chirac emerged from a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to admit that the path to Turkish accession was "irreversible." Official Ankara was delighted--the Turkish line is that Chirac has so far kept his enthusiasm for Turkey under wraps because of domestic pressures, and is now speaking what one official describes as "his true opinions." That may be a tad optimistic, but Chirac's comments are nevertheless good news for Ankara, which has long viewed France and Austria as the most Turko-skeptic countries in the EU. Now, with Chirac conceding what one senior French diplomat describes as "a tactical defeat" over Turkey and the usually Turkophobe Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner bowing to peer-group pressure and admitting Turkey "could qualify" to join the EU if it fulfills all of Brussels' criteria, the last pieces of the jigsaw seem to be falling into place.
The turnaround, however, may not be as dramatic as it seems. Chirac's statement only draws the battle lines for the next stage of the debate--over how fast to admit Turkey, and on what terms. On one side are not only the United States--which hopes that EU membership will give the Turks the confidence to play a leading role in bringing secularism and democracy to the Middle East--but pro-American nations like Britain and Poland. On the other remain "old" Europeans like France and Austria, who see the giant Muslim country as a threat to ever-closer EU integration and continue to distrust Washington. Turkey may not yet have replaced Iraq as the wedge issue plaguing the transatlantic relationship. But, caught up in these various rivalries, it's sure to remain a point of friction in the coming months.