Europe Out, China In – The Unfortunate Tale of the Ilısu Dam Project

Tuesday, 16. March 2010     1 comment(s)
Johanna Nykänen
Research Assistant
Hasankeyf (photo: European Rivers Network) Hasankeyf (photo: European Rivers Network)

Victory! European and Turkish activists cheered as the controversial Ilısu Dam project was brought to a halt last year. Funds for the project dried up as the German, Swiss and Austrian governments withdrew from the questionable dam plan. The dam, if completed, would not only flood significant conservation areas, including the ancient city of Hasankeyf and other, unexplored archaeological sites, but would displace up to 78 000 people and severely reduce the flow of water to the downstream states of Iraq and Syria. This last factor could exacerbate con­flict in the region.

However, mere months later, China had already marched in, eager to pour its yuans into the lucrative investment opportunity left behind by the retreating Europeans. China’s export credit insurance agency, Sinosure, is now considering funding the dam, meaning that the project is on again. Whilst it might be tempting to turn this into a tale of moral West versus immoral East, it is more constructive to consider how to adapt to the new world order in which China can no longer be ignored.

If anything, this highlights the pressing need for a common front in European foreign policy. Had Europe had the adequate foresight and institutional tools to form a united stance on the Ilısu Dam project – which with very little background research would have been easy to determine as condemnable – perhaps this political fiasco could have been prevented. To reinforce the stance, the issue could have been unofficially tied in with Turkey’s EU bid.

The European Union condemning an issue with one strong voice would have more weight both domestically and internationally than member states doing so individually, and in the case of the Ilısu Dam, it could have created a political climate in which China would not have got involved in the project. Even Turkey hopes that the EU would play a more important political role in the world. As Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, pointed out during his recent visit to Finland: "The EU can provide strong messages and very good examples for other countries and regions." But even if it had not prevented China from rushing in, at least Europe would not have been left looking divided and impotent.

Once the EU has the adequate institutional tools – a foreign policy head and diplomatic corps – situations like this could be better avoided. And as for the dam itself, it can only be hoped that the tireless Ilısu campaigners can persuade the Chinese to also abandon the project.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

31.5.2011, Lauri Tammi

What an interesting article! This shows how China's power is expanding and the governments - and people - in Europe should be better prepared for it. So how to respond to this rising influence - co-operation or competition? Ethically and on the terms of human rights some might argue for the latter. However, realistically and practically I doubt that Europe has any credible possibility in a long run to respond in any other way than cooperating closely with the Chinese - and the other (re)emerging economies ("the rest"). This might be sad, but also so true - especially when Europe still cannot get its act together, which Nykänen well points out in her highly interesting article. The 21st century new world order will be very different from the one we've got used to here in the post-World War II era; the velocity to adapt to this change should be much faster than it is now.

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