The Irish Times
October 9, 2004
EU role for Turkey would boost Middle East democracy
WorldView: In Turkey the European Commission’s favourable but tough
report on whether negotiations on joining the EU should start with
Ankara next year was widely greeted, writes Paul Gillespie.
Members of the moderate Islamist governing party, business and trade
union leaders, women’s organisations, leaders of the Kurdish minority
and sections of the armed forces welcomed it.
There was a more sceptical response from secular nationalists in the
army, bureaucracy and in right-wing parties which defend Turkey’s
sovereignty against outside encroachment. They suspect the EU agenda
of democracy and minority rights is part of a devious and abiding
international conspiracy to weaken and divide their state.
These differing reactions are instructive in evaluating the merits of
the Commission’s case for Turkey’s eventual accession to the EU.
Turks can be remarkably quick to take offence from Brussels, having
been on the receiving end of hostility and prevarication for over 40
years on their application to join – and more particularly through
Ever since the Treaty of Sevres was imposed on the rump of the
Ottoman Empire in 1920, in an attempt to partition Anatolia, there
has been a deep syndrome of suspicion in Turkish politics. It is
associated with a determination to resist takeover through a
programme of modernisation to emulate its European competitors and
thereby protect itself from them. It draws strongly on the 19th
century experience of the retreating Ottoman empire (described as the
“sick man of Europe” – not of Asia – by Czar Nicholas 1 in 1853) and
similar efforts to modernise it from the 1870s.
Kemal Ataturk based his nationalist revolution of the 1920s on these
sentiments. The state he built was founded on sweeping reforms in
which the caliphate was abolished, academic curriculums reformed and
the Arabic script replaced by a Latin one. Religious courts were
abolished, the legal system westernised and women given suffrage and
The resulting secular republic drew strongly on the inspiration of
French Jacobin republicanism. It had a unitary view of the “people”
and was suspicious of pluralism, identity and human rights because
they would fuel separatism and division.
Kemalism’s prehistory during the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916 and
the trauma of the independence war after it, in which over a million
Anatolian Greeks were expelled in exchange for Greek Turks, have
profoundly affected Turkey’s political culture. They gave the
military a central position in protecting national unity. Kurds have
been suspected of encouraging a breakup since the 1920s, a suspicion
fuelled during the 1990s rebellion in which 30,000 people died. It is
stoked again by demands of the Kurds in neighbouring Iraq for deep
autonomy within a federal state, which Kemalists believe could have a
The EU is seen as an agent of change by many of the forces in Turkish
society who want to transform this Kemalist inheritance by combining
it with religious, cultural and ethnic diversities persisting from
the Ottoman past. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP),
which has an outright majority in sharp contrast to the nine
different coalitions in the 1990s, has continued another round of
sweeping reforms begun in 2001 in response to a previous Commission
According to the veteran Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand the
changes since then have been “nothing short of a miracle”. There have
been two major constitutional and 66 statutory amendments, 49 public
notices, 29 regulatory policies and 28 international agreements
ratified – a tremendous legislative output in a highly legalistic
In summary, the political system has been liberalised, while
restrictions on freedom of the press, expression and association have
been relaxed. Turkey has signed up to the European Convention of
Human Rights. The new government has adopted a zero-sum policy
towards police and army torture. The death penalty has been
abolished. Anti-terrorist statutes have been substantially changed
and the state security courts dismantled.
Kurdish civil and linguistic rights have been explicitly recognised
and protected, and the state of emergency in southeastern provinces
lifted. A provisional amnesty for Kurdish prisoners has been agreed,
and several prominent parliamentarians released.
The military’s special powers have also been curtailed and its
special financing brought under parliamentary scrutiny. The powerful
National Security Council has been trimmed, with the prime minister
appointing its secretary-general, who directs its work.
High inflation has been curtailed, as have interest rates and bank
loans. Through an International Monetary Fund loan the pension system
has been changed, the bureaucracy cut back and bankruptcy laws
reformed. Growth for this year is expected to reach 5 per cent.
These sweeping changes are fully acknowledged in the Commission’s
report, even as they are seen as a work in progress requiring much
more effort over the coming years. Mehmet Ali Birand says no special
conditions are laid down for Turkey, the reforms are not beyond its
capacities and there is no secret agenda involved. “Most of it is no
harder than the way we criticise ourselves,” he says.
There are, of course, still many suspicions on both sides. Turks in
favour of EU membership are quick to recognise Christian prejudice
against their country and keen to distance themselves from a clash of
civilisations. The fact that these reforms have flowed from a
moderate Islamic government creates suspicions among older secular
Turks that it is working to a hidden agenda of rolling back
But the AKP is deeply rooted, very ably led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
and represents a new political generation anxious for change. Its
foreign policy positions have also adapted, notably on Cyprus,
relations with Greece and on Iraq. Turkish co-operation with the US
invasion was withdrawn after a free parliamentary vote in March last
A commentary in the liberal Israeli paper Ha’aretz this week points
out that a reforming Turkey inspired by EU membership to continue on
this path is a far better bulwark for democracy in the Middle East
than governments imposed by US arms. This geopolitical aspect
underlines how eventual Turkish membership can transform the EU’s
international role. One has only to think of the consequences should
Turkey consider itself rejected to realise how different it could be.
That dog did not bark much this week.