THE FEELING IS MUTUAL: WHY TURKS ARE GROWING DISILLUSIONED WITH EUROPE
By Vincent Boland
Financial Times (London, England)
January 4, 2007 Thursday
London Edition 1
EUROPEAN UNION: As opposition to Ankara’s accession hardens within
the EU, increasing numbers of people in Turkey itself are thinking
twice about the need to join the bloc, writes Vincent Boland
In 1933 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, threw down
a tantalising challenge to his countrymen on the 10th anniversary
of the founding of the republic: "We shall raise our country to
the level of the most prosperous and civilised countries . . . we
shall raise our national culture above the level of contemporary
civilisation," he said.
Ataturk, who died in 1938, bequeathed many exhortations to the Turks.
Some are pithy, some are apocryphal and one or two are even wise.
They can be found today in school textbooks and engraved on the walls
of official buildings. But the reference to "contemporary civilisation"
is more ambiguous than most. It is generally assumed by Turks that
he meant that Turkey, once the heart of the Ottoman Empire, should
become European. He admired French republicanism and the British
parliamentary system and under his leadership Turkey adopted the
weekend, western dress and an army on the French model, beginning a
journey westward that continues more than 80 years later.
But the ambiguity of the remark, long overlooked, seems prophetic
today. Inside Turkey, the debate about "contemporary civilisation"
is as pertinent now as it was in Ataturk’s time and this year will
be critical in shaping its outcome. Last year Turkey’s long-held
ambition to join the European Union suffered a head-on clash with
reality. The negotiating process is now partly frozen because of a
dispute with Brussels over Cyprus.
Hostility in some EU countries to Turkey’s membership is increasing,
while support for membership among Turks is falling. This year,
two events will have a decisive impact on Turkey’s European ambition.
Turkey’s parliament is due to elect a new president in May in a
process that could change the country’s political dynamic, especially
if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, seeks the presidency
(he has not ruled out such a move). Also, parliamentary elections
slated for November could usher in a coalition government that lacks
the singlemindedness with which Mr Erdogan’s ruling neo-Islamist
Justice and Development party has pursued EU membership.
By the end of 2007, Turkey’s relationship with Europe will not
be decided but it may be clarified. The elections will take place
against a background of a profound change in public consensus on the
EU. When Turkey began its accession process to join the EU in 2004,
support for membership stood above two-thirds. Now it is about 35
per cent, according to a recent opinion poll in Milliyet, a daily
newspaper. The decline is matched by rising suspicion of the west
more generally. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, in
its 2006 Transatlantic Trends survey, showed that Turkey’s attitude
towards the US, on a 100-point scale, declined from 28 in 2004 to 20
in 2006, and towards the EU from 52 to 45.
This about-turn in perceptions is shaking the faith of even the
truest believers in the country’s European destiny. Umit Boyner,
a businesswoman who heads a corporate initiative to promote Turkey in
the EU, says: "Most of us wanted to believe that the EU meant democracy
and minority rights and women’s rights and fighting corruption. Now
we see this phobia about Turkey, this feeling that we are not wanted
by other Europeans, and we are asking ourselves: ‘Is this really the
Europe we believed in, or were we kidding ourselves?’"
The EU’s failure to honour a commitment to end the isolation of
Turkish Cypriots in northern Cyprus is the most obvious cause of this
change in sentiment. The recent vote in the lower house of the French
parliament to make it a crime to deny that the massacre of Armenians
in 1915-16 was genocide created much bitterness. It also led to a
backlash against France, perceived as the most formidable opponent
of Turkey’s EU membership.
The EU’s constant focus on minority rights and the role of the armed
forces, mixed with the perception among large numbers of Turks of
rising Islamophobia in Europe, has added to the feeling that the
EU is casting around for an excuse to say a final No to Turkey’s
membership. EU officials insist, however, that the human and political
rights of prospective members are always closely scrutinised and that
the door to Turkey remains open.
Cengiz Aktar, a professor and staunch pro-European at Bahcesehir
University in Istanbul, says the tone of the debate in some EU
countries suggests that Turkey is being made to address a question that
no other member state has had to address: whether it is a European
country. "Nobody questions the ‘Europeanness’ even of Cyprus, which
is closer to the Middle East than Ankara, but Turkey’s Europeanness
is under question," he says.
Turkey is different from other aspiring EU member states in crucial
respects. Most of the formerly communist countries that have joined
the EU since the end of the cold war saw their destiny in Europe or
were seduced by Europe’s famed "soft power" – its ability to persuade
countries to transform themselves, with the promise of membership, into
stable democracies. This is not the case with Turkey, a country with
an embedded sense of identity based on a distinctly hard nationalism
inherited from Ataturk and the founders of the republic through an
ideology known as Kemalism.
Among its tenets are an unwavering belief in the soundness of Turkey’s
constitutional arrangements – which dictate a delicate balance
between the state and the citizen and parliament and the military –
and fidelity to the founding myths of the republic. These tenets are
perceived, in some cases, to be antithetical to European norms as
set out in the Copenhagen Criteria – a set of political objectives
that aspiring EU members must achieve to get in.
One of the most serious ideological clashes between Turkey and the EU
concerns the role of the military. Since 1923, Turkey’s armed forces
have seen themselves as the guardians of the republic and have staged
four coups d’etat since the second world war (the fourth, in 1997,
was a "post-modern coup" without actual tanks in the streets) as if
to prove the point.
Turkey’s armed forces, a popular and monumentally self-important
institution, have agreed to greater civilian control of military
affairs, including budget supervision, as part of the EU process. But
whether Turkey is institutionally ready to accept a complete
subordination of the military to civilian authority, as the EU would
require, is one of the central ambiguities of the country’s European
ambition. There are occasional signs that the ostensibly pro-EU
general staff is unconvinced that its vision of a strong, centralised,
sovereign Turkey is consistent with the country’s EU membership.
If the military is undecided, so is the broad spectrum of public
opinion. For Turkey, joining the EU is a choice rather than
a destiny. Because they view it as a choice and see the decks
increasingly stacked against them, many are starting to rediscover
their inner Kemalist. Turks are openly questioning whether European
norms or values are in any way superior to those they already hold.
Kemalism may merely be a grander name for hard Turkish nationalism,
suffused with a strong sense of republicanism, sovereignty and
self-reliance. But whatever it is called, it is posing a direct
challenge to the EU’s soft power.
Sedat Laciner, director of the International Strategic Research
Organisation, a think-tank in Ankara, says -Turkey’s experience of
its EU accession process is of a piece with its experience of other
western-inspired developments in Turkey’s neighbourhood in the past
five years – especially the invasion of Iraq, which remains hugely
unpopular among Turks, and the plight of the Palestinians. "All of
these have changed Turkish attitudes to the EU, with the result that
the EU is losing the most important tool in its arsenal, which is
its ability to persuade Turkey to do as it asks," Mr Laciner says.
Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall
Fund of the United States, sees a direct historical parallel between
Turkey’s most recent bout of suspicion of Europe and a similar attitude
provoked in the late 19th century by the agitation of foreign powers
for minority rights in the Ottoman Empire – which in practice would
have given European citizens living there almost colonial-style
The dynamic of Turkey’s relationship with the EU, where every aspect
of its modern identity and history appears to be a legitimate target
for European scrutiny and criticism, "is almost a replay of a time
that invokes Turkey’s worst fears about disintegration, about our
unity being broken, about an undue emphasis on minorities and people
of non-Turkish stock," Mr Kiniklioglu says. By "hitting Turkey on its
most sensitive issues," he adds, "the EU has overplayed its hand as
far as the impact of its soft power is concerned."
The EU accession process has stimulated important reforms in Turkey
– such as changes to the country’s penal code and abolition of the
death penalty. But some commentators say the accession agreement
between Turkey and the EU contains the seeds of its own failure,
because it does not offer Turks a guarantee of membership. It is the
first time such a pledge has been withheld from a candidate country.
Ahmet Evin, director of the Istanbul Policy Centre at Sabanci
University, says this fact compromises the EU’s ability to use moral
suasion to encourage Turkey to reform in the way that would satisfy
European public opinion. "The ability of the EU to Europeanise Turkey
is fatally undermined by this lack of commitment," he says.
A dialogue of the deaf would therefore appear to be preordained
between Turkey and Europe. A curious side-effect has been the manner in
which Turkish people are now turning on the EU with the message that
"without Turkey, the EU is doomed". Mr Erdogan has transformed his
argument for Turkey’s membership from one of civil rights, economic
stability and greater democracy to one couched in religious and
Businesspeople are also increasingly likely to lecture the EU – as
they did at a recent World Economic Forum conference in Istanbul –
about how Europe needs Turkey’s young workforce, which is mainly
unskilled, and its market, which is large but relatively poor. Some
observers say this argument is indicative of the sometimes overblown
notions Turks harbour about their country’s strategic importance and
urge a little modesty. "We have to remember that we are the ones who
want to join the club," Ms Boyner says.
Others say the basis of Turkey’s engagement with and understanding of
the EU needs to adapt to today’s realities. "The pro-EU argument in
Turkey is overstated by its supporters," says Ercan Uygur, professor
of economics at Ankara University. He says it was shaped initially
by a lack of information about the EU and now by a misunderstanding
of what the EU might mean for Turkey.
The EU is a choice for Turkey that should not be based on a
misunderstanding. "When it comes to a choice – an informed choice –
most Turks would still choose the European Union," Prof Uygur says.