Will They Split Before They Marry?


Spiegel Online, Germany
Oct 3 2005

If Ankara enters into accession talks this week with the European
Union, it will do so bitter and disillusioned. Support for Turkey’s
move toward the West is diminishing back home. And the anger last
minute conditions set by the EU have generated pose considerable
political risks — not just for Turkey.

Perhaps it has to do with his own domestic bliss, or perhaps it’s
the number of famous people whose marriages he once consummated as
the mayor of Istanbul. But it’s clear: Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan loves to compare foreign policy to marriage.

Turkey’s entry into the European Union, Erdogan once confided
to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is like a “Catholic
wedding.” The Italian, a Christian, immediately understood what his
Muslim Turkish counterpart meant: a boisterous party, much fanfare
and ado, and a bond that lasts until death do us part.

That was three years ago, at a time when euphoria for Europe had
reached its pinnacle in Turkey. Back then, 85 percent of Turks
supported EU membership. Berlusconi had come to Istanbul to attend the
wedding of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. He was followed later by his Greek
colleague, Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, who attended the
wedding of Bilal’s sister Ersa.

These days, though, euphoria for European membership is shrinking
by the week and only 60 percent of Turks still say they support
EU membership. Yet again, Erdogan has found a marriage comparison
to pointedly describe the current situation: The constant new
preconditions being set by the Europeans so close to the start of
accession negotiations — including the consolation of a “privileged
partnership,” — is tantamount to “going to the altar and suddenly
saying: ‘Let’s just stay friends.'”

After serious last minute diplomatic wrangling — which included
a plea for help from United States Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice — Turkey finally got the go ahead on Monday from the European
Union to begin negotiations for eventual membership. Of course,
with Austria unwilling to budge, the outcome of Monday’s marathon
diplomacy was anything but certain until the very last minute. And
as of Monday evening, it was still uncertain whether Turkey would
accept the final agreement.

In Vienna, where memories of Turkish-led Ottoman Empire invasions
of Austria are still a regular part of history lessons, politicians
demanded last week that any accession negotiation framework for Turkey
also include a provision of a “privilege partnership” if negotiations
for full-membership were to collapse. But critics of Austria alleged
the country had ulterior motives: its desire to have accession talks
fast-tracked for longtime ally Croatia. Elements of xenophobia and
Islamophobia were also alleged.

With such complicated twists and turns just before the start of
negotiations, Ankara is looking to Brussels with bitterness and
disillusionment. Indeed, support for Turkey’s Western ambitions are
waning, and opponents of the EU within Turkey are returning to the

A few weeks ago, the sentiment was different. The Turkish press
viewed the outcome of German parliamentary elections as the “burial
of the privileged partnership” idea championed by conservative
chancellor candidate Angela Merkel. But the mood nevertheless remained
skeptical. “Even if the negotiations begin on Oct. 3, who knows what
will happen on Oct. 4 or what crises will result in the suspension
of talks six months later,” the Turkish daily Sabah wondered.

So why this misery on a day that diplomats in Ankara have been
working towards for 50 years — one which is supposed to herald the
consummation of an historic mission that is cemented in Turkey’s state
doctrine? “We Turks only go in one direction,” the country’s founder,
Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, once told his people, “West.”

On the outside, the cause of the disagreement couldn’t be more
mundane. It’s linked to the complicated situation on the divided
Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Ankara has refused to recognize the
government of the southern Greek half of the island as representatives
of the entire island and it has refused to allow ships and planes from
the Republic of Cyprus to use Turkish sea ports and airports. Europe,
however, has made the outcome of negotiations with Turkey contingent on
Ankara’s official recognition of the EU member state. Without taking
this step and without opening up its borders for the unrestricted
transport of goods from Greek Cypriots, the European Union’s transport
minister, Jacques Barrot, has said, it would be impossible to lead
the accession talks to success.

The Turks are being too obstinate, but it’s also possible that
Brussels bureaucrats are sticking too close to the script, observed
a self-critical Western diplomat in Ankara. The Europeans have given
too little recognition to the fact that Erdogan has stripped the
leader of Cyprus’s Turks, Rauf Denktas of his power. Nor has Europe
given proper recognition to the fact that the northern Cypriot Turks
enthusiastically embraced the United Nation’s plan for the island’s
reunification. It was, after all, the Greek Cypriots who rejected the
plan in a referendum vote in April 2004, just before the EU expanded
by 10 members, including a divided Cyprus.

These days, the Cyprus conflict is being viewed in Turkey as a symbol
of the growing apprehension for the entire Europe project. Turkish
columnist Semih Idiz has described it as the “enough is enough
sentiment.” “If the government were to declare today it was going to
break off relations with the European Union, they would probably be
greeted with broad accordance.”

During recent months, EU opponents in Turkey have been awakening
from their political coma. Supported by strong signals of support
from Brussels, Erdogan quickly put pressure on them after he entered
office. They include the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP),
hardliners in the Turkish General Staff and the firm Kemalists within
the state apparatus, or “bureaucratic oligarchs,” as Erdogan likes
to disparagingly call them.

Recently, the winds have changed in Europe, as well. Following the
failure of referenda on the European constitution in France and the
Netherlands, criticism of Turkish EU membership has also increased,
and many in Turkey have the feeling the country is being pushed to drop
its aspirations. A sort of bunker mentality is gaining traction here.

“If I were a European, I wouldn’t accept Turkey in the Union either,”
says Emin Colasan, derisively. The stalwart nationalist columnist
for the Turkish daily Hurriyet is considered the mouthpiece of the
conservative Turkish Officer Corps. When Erdogan came back from
Brussels one year ago, the prime minister’s colleagues cracked jokes
about Colasan and many didn’t take him seriously.

A year later, his columns are once again required reading for the
chattering classes. The EU, he recently wrote, has “put Turkey in its
lap” like an underage child. And he argues that the reform laws that
have been implemented by the government under pressure from Europe
have weakened the Turkish state. He alleges reforms would make it
impossible to efficiently fight against terrorism, that they would
encourage Kurdish separatism and increase the influence of Islamists.

“Everything that is in the interest of the Europeans,” Colasan said,
“has destroyed our national honor.”

Other critics of EU membership argue that the EU will attempt to
colonize and plunder Ankara. They say Brussels has fed Turkey a
constant stream of lies and it is attempting to impose strictly
Christian values on Turkish society. The head of the MHP party in
Istanbul, Ihsan Barutcu, even compared the EU with a horse, saying:
“You can only mount it if you can steer it.”

Another popular line is that the only friends Turks have are
themselves. This school of thought has gained currency following
the recent debate about the genocide of Armenians. Internationally
renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the recent recipient of the
peace prize of the German Booksellers’ Association, got an unwanted
glimpse of that recently. He didn’t just get hate mail and death
threats after making his recent comment that 1 million Armenians were
murdered in the Ottoman Empire and 30,000 Kurds in modern Turkey. He
is also scheduled to stand trial on Dec. 16 as a result.

It gets worse. After Turkey’s justice minister vilified the organizers
of an academic conference on the question of Armenian genocide as
“traitors to their country,” a court banned the meeting.

Last week, a private university disregarded the court and held the
conference, but protestors showered participants, including a former
Turkish foreign minister, with eggs.

Religious minorities in Turkey are also reporting bad experiences
with the state apparatus. The Alevites, a Muslim faith derived from
Shiite, claim that they are discriminated against by a Turkish state
that exclusively supports the country’s Sunni Islam. If the situation
doesn’t change, they have threatened to take their case to the European
Court of Justice, demanding equal status with the Sunnis.

Turkey’s deputy head of government, Ali Sahin, also recently described
the recent invitation extended to Pope Benedikt XVI by Istanbul’s
Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I as “inappropriate.” That, Sahin said,
is a privilege reserved for the government. Back when he was still
known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope spoke out against EU
membership for the majority Muslim Turkey (“a grave error .. against
the tide of history”), and Sahin said he would have to.

make due with an invitation from the president. The whole exchange
prompted Foreign Minister Gul to remark: “No country is as good as
Turkey at shooting itself in the foot.”

For his part, Erdogan has valiantly countered the wave of chauvinism
in his country. Last week, he condemned the court’s decision to ban
the Armenia conference, “because I want to live in a Turkey in which
freedom of expression is all-embracing.” The Kurdish problem, he said,
needs to be solved “with more democracy, greater civil liberties and
increased prosperity.” Not even an assassination attempt on Erdogan
at the hands of a misguided nationalist two weeks ago was enough to
disturb his peace of mind.

But in reality, diplomats in Ankara are reporting that the prime
minister has given up his belief in the goal of the EU process. But
they say he still hopes that the British EU presidency, which is well
disposed to Ankara, will be able to open negotiations with one or
two unproblematic issues — national statistics or the environment,
for example, two disciplines in which Turkey is already operating at
European standards today. When Turkey-critic Austria assumes the EU
presidency in January, the Turks believe the negotiations will come
to a temporary standstill.

Erdogan wants to avoid an open break with Brussels for at least two
more years, because the International Monetary Fund’s billion-dollar
Turkey Program lasts until 2007. After that he might have to resort
to something he always hints at in times of crisis, without being
very specific: Turkey has “alternatives” to Europe.

Those alternatives could alarm Europeans, says Turkey expert Bulent
Aliriza, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies
in Washington. On a foreign-policy level they could mean turning
towards Russia, Iran, and Syria, under already obvious pressure from
the military. In particular Aliriza points to Erdogan’s relationship
to Vladimir Putin: his power seems to impress the Turkish premier.

And domestic politics, overall, might regress: The reignited conflict
with the Kurds threatens to grow worse without Europe’s tempering
influence; the general staff could declare a state of emergency
in certain Kurdish provinces. “The reforms wouldn’t necessarily go
forward,” says Aliriza, “since they’ve clearly been an outgrowth of
the EU process.”

Expectations are modest, even now that accession talks have started.

“What is the EU?” asked the English-language Turkish Daily News last
week, in an Internet poll. Almost 800 readers answered unambiguously:
the EU was a “modernization project” to 2.6 percent of the respondents,
while 46.9 percent checked the box declaring that the EU was nothing
but “a Christian club.”



You may also like