Turkey passed a milestone in its long and arduous journey toward acceptance into the exclusive club of the European Union when the EU gave Turkey a date for the start of accession talks. But major obstacles remain — chiefly resurgent anti-Muslim feeling in Europe and resurgent ethnic nationalism in Turkey.

Among neighbors, at the market and in every taxi, small talk in Turkey is dominated by a single question: whether or not the European Union will accept Turkey as its first majority-Muslim member state. The stated or presumed preferences of the EU have become a moral yardstick by which Turkish society assesses the government’s every policy choice. Even everyday social interaction is now being judged from this perspective: “We will never be accepted by the Europeans if we behave in such and such a manner.”

The obsession is not one-sided. A similar preoccupation can be found all over Europe, among moderates as well as conservatives: “Can Turks ever become a part of our European culture? How can Muslim Turks share our Christian values? How can ‘the sick man of Europe’ enter into the life of our continent when for centuries we struggled to keep him out?”

On all sides of the controversy in both Turkey and Europe, the concerns of public opinion are completely independent of the primary concerns of the Turkish and European governments. Political leaders on both sides make their calculations about this reluctant partnership out of economic and geopolitical considerations, rather than emotional and cultural ones. Considering that one of the major ideas behind the establishment of the EU was to establish a common market, it makes sense to evaluate the benefits of Turkish entry from an economic point of view. Over the years, however, certain fundamental ideological principles of the EU have become associated with qualifying for entry as well — to some extent displacing the earlier preoccupation with economics. These principles include democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities.

A Long Journey

Turkey’s relationship with the EU has a complex history. In 1963, the European Economic Community and Turkey signed the Ankara Agreement whereby Turkey would be treated as an associate member until Turkey’s circumstances permitted its accession as a full member. Malta in 1970 and Cyprus in 1972 entered similar relationships with the EU. Turkey advanced little in the Europeans’ estimation during the 1970s and 1980s because of the conflict over Cyprus following Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island, as well as internal political turmoil and military interventions. Turkey was also immersed in the project of opening up its statecontrolled economy to the rigors of the free market. In 1987, while the EU was completing the Single Market negotiations, Turkey applied for full membership. But Europe was not then ready for enlargement, and Turkey’s economic and political conditions were not deemed satisfactory.

After the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, the EU established diplomatic relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and soon enlargement to include these countries was no longer a question of if, but when. In 1993, the EU took a decisive step toward encouraging the enlargement by enumerating the Copenhagen criteria. These criteria in the areas of political conditions (institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights and respect for minorities), economic conditions (foundations of a market economy) and community participation (adherence to the various political, economic and monetary aims of the EU) set forth the qualifications for membership that candidate countries must satisfy. All of the ten candidate countries that eventually acceded to the EU on May 1, 2004 were able to convince Europeans that they were eligible under the criteria. Enlargement was not painless for Europe. The financial burden was huge, considering that the population would rise by over 25 percent to 500 million with the first wave of accessions, while the total GDP of the EU would grow by no more than 5 percent.

Unlike the newest member states and the other outstanding candidates, Turkey’s application has never received a warm welcome. Of course, the criticisms by the EU were far from baseless. Turkey’s denial of basic rights to the Kurds, democratic deficit and high double-digit inflation made its case easy to reject. After several rejections, the first positive response came in 1999 when, at the Helsinki Summit, the EU officially recognized Turkey without any precondition as an accession candidate on an equal footing with the other candidates. Finally, on December 17, 2004, the EU decided that Turkey had met the Copenhagen criteria, and a new era dawned between Turkey and the EU.

The EU has committed itself to start the membership negotiation process by October 2005. Despite this forward progress, the decision is not as positive as it sounds. Burdensome conditions and demands were expressed in the details of the agreement. In the words of the European Commission report of October 2004, “it is an open-ended process” that, in theory, could go on and on without ever setting a date for Turkish full membership. Every country that has started negotiations with the EU has been offered a place. Will Turkey be the first exception to this pattern?

Cyprus Again and Again

Besides the Copenhagen criteria, Turkey has been following the guidance of EU officials on foreign policy, including that of some who appeared to be under the influence of the Greek government. Many EU have encouraged Turkey to resolve its conflicts with neighboring states by following principles of international law. There is nothing wrong with such a suggestion in principle, but it seems to reinforce the Greek proposal for solving the Greek-Turkish dispute over control over the continental shelf under the Aegean Islands with recourse to the International Court of Justice. Turkey has been reluctant to allow the ICJ to settle the controversy, worrying about the influence of the strong Greek lobby in international forums and the likely adoption by the ICJ of a positivist view of international law of the seas that appears to justify the Greek position rather than taking account of Turkish national interests.

For a long time, Greece was the biggest obstacle to Turkey’s accession. Finally, in recent years, the Turkish and Greek governments were able to end their long-time enmity through the personal efforts of their respective foreign ministers. The “earthquake rapprochement” — an outpouring of mutual sympathy following the devastating tremors that hit the Marmara region in 1999 — also helped change the climate of hostility in both Greece and Turkey, as did some remarkable efforts at cooperation by Greek and Turkish NGOs. Finally, both Mediterranean countries started to evaluate their geopolitical interests in a global context rather than through the narrow lens of neighborly rivalry. In this spirit, Greece finally suspended the use of its veto against Turkey and relaxed its previously hardline stance on the status of Cyprus.

The Cyprus problem, however, has returned to haunt Turkey at the entry gate to the EU. First, in May 2004, the Cypriot referendum on reunification failed. Greek Cypriots voted no in overwhelming numbers because the Greek-controlled Republic of Cyprus was already on track for full membership without having to absorb the Turkish north. Then, in December 2004, an EU report made it clear that Turkey must fulfill two more conditions before being considered for membership. One condition was the indirect recognition of the Republic of Cyprus by Turkey. Surprisingly, the EU report did not acknowledge that it was the Greek Cypriots’ rejection that has created the present, very difficult situation — in contrast to the Turkish Cypriot enthusiasm for reunification in the referendum. Moreover, as a new member, the Republic of Cyprus has been brutally outspoken in its promises to give the Turks a hard time in any future negotiations. It would seem that either the Greek lobby in Brussels is still working hard to inject the view that Turkey should be kept outside the EU, or that EU officials are using the Cyprus conflict as a pretext to keep Turkey from establishing itself within EU borders. Of course, it is quite possible that both efforts are taking place
at the same time.

The Success of “Soft Islam”

Besides the external factors, the December 2004 rapprochement with the EU came in response to recent developments in Turkey itself. In November 2002, the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or the AKP) won a majority in Parliament and took the reins of government. The AKP leadership, representatives of “soft Islam,” in the fashionable jargon, has been remarkably successful in implementing EU recommendations as a means of jump-starting the stalled negotiations. Interestingly enough, previous, secular-run Turkish governments were unable to realize comparable achievements, despite their strong ties with the West.

There are several reasons why the AKP government has been more successful. First of all, the AKP received a majority of popular votes, enabling it to establish one-party rule rather than yet another of the ineffectual multi-party coalitions produced by Turkish electoral democracy for decades. Having the necessary parliamentary majority, the AKP was able to change legislation and enact completely new laws, including significant amendments to the Turkish constitution that was widely labeled as “anti-democratic and anti-human rights” in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. Secondly, the EU demands on democratization, demilitarization of Turkish political life and a respectful attitude toward human rights coincided exactly with what the AKP and many other Islamic-oriented parties have been advocating for many years. The AKP emphasizes human rights from the standpoint of pluralism, as well as for the instrumental reason of accession. The party appears genuinely to value differences in religion, culture and opinion, regarding secularism as the principle of freedom that makes diversity of practice and expression a reality. Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan himself has been a victim of the “limited freedom of speech” in Turkey. The former mayor of Istanbul was barred from holding public office in 1998 after he quoted a poem: “Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets, domes our helmets, the believers our soldiers.” Though, ironically, the stanza was written by Ziya Gökalp, a hero of secular Turkish nationalists, the courts interpreted it as advocating Islamic revolution. Meanwhile, several headscarf cases, including one involving the wife of the former Turkish foreign minister, await resolution at the European Courts of Human Rights. Islamists are hoping that the ECHR will emancipate them from the views of the rigidly ultrasecular Constitutional Court. The AKP, therefore, has its own reasons for wanting to curtail the authority of the Constitutional Court and the constant surveillance of the Turkish military. It was this happy combination of external demands and internal circumstances that permitted major reforms to go forward.

Recent reforms relating to democratization, demilitarization and enhancing human rights protection occurred in a period during which several established democracies have invoked national security and fear of terrorist attack to bolster police powers and limit civil liberties. Turkey claims rather persuasively to be the only country that has made positive changes in its legal system since September 11, 2001, getting rid of both “security courts” and an oppressive “anti-terror law.”

In other areas, especially those related to family law and gender equality, the demands of the Copenhagen criteria had long been on the agenda of the Turkish parliament. Contrary to the general belief of Western public opinion, Turkey is the only country in the Muslim world that has a completely secular legal system, modeled on European experience and operative since the 1920s. The recent legal reforms are rather trivial by comparison with the dramatic transformation realized by Kemal Atatürk. Turks are deeply proud of the Atatürk-era reforms that, among other things, gave Turkish women political rights much earlier than in many European countries. The Swiss-based Turkish civil code and the Turkish penal code that was borrowed from Italy needed to be updated to take account of changes in outlook since the time of their adoption in the early twentieth century. As a result of the international feminist movement, many European laws similar to the Turkish code were previously adjusted. The new civil code of 2004, therefore, was generally an uncontroversial reform to make except in areas such as property rights in marriage, where the male-dominated Turkish parliament resisted change.

The reform of the Turkish penal code, expected to be finished in June 2005, is the biggest reform yet undertaken. One of the issues that received critical attention from Europeans involved the criminalization of adultery. The old Turkish penal code article on adultery, derived from Italy, had already been voided by the Constitutional Court, which concluded that adultery as legally defined conflicted with the constitutional principle of gender equality. During the preparation of the new penal code in Parliament, some conservative members of the AKP wanted to make adultery again a crime in the new penal code. The mistake was quickly corrected, but European public opinion seized upon the incident to reassert the concern that Turkey, despite pretensions to the contrary, is in truth home to a strict Islamic culture. Ireland and Malta, EU members since 1973 and 2004, respectively, are both strict Catholic countries that had similar anti-adultery provisions in their domestic legal systems when they were negotiating accession with the EU. Ireland only repealed its law in 1981, and maintains a constitutional ban on abortion, as do Malta and Poland, which also joined the EU in 2004. Until 1997, Ireland did not allow divorce, either. Yet, unlike Muslim Turkey, these Catholic European legal regimes did not agitate egalitarian European public opinion during accession negotiations, suggesting a double standard.

Unwritten Conditions

Officially, Islam does not play a formal role in the EU’s decision whether to accept Turkey as a member state. Yet many Europeans wonder if a Muslim country such as Turkey would really fit into the union. The big question is whether Turkish Islam is compatible with the values upon which the EU is based. If Turkey fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria, how could Islam become an unwritten obstacle to accession?

After the September 11 attacks, the concerns in Europe about Islam and Muslims have become more vocal than at any time since Turkey first applied to the EU. The attack dramatically changed the social and political climate and aroused dormant feelings of deep unease. Ethnic violence became more quickly associated with Islam and religious Muslims in Europe, who were themselves more quickly viewed as dangerous fundamentalists. Incidents such as the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Spain and the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist were enough to create strong resentment against and fears of Islam in Europe. Over the last four decades, the Turkish “guest workers” in Germany and elsewhere, France’s North African Muslim immigrants, Moroccans in Spain and South Asian minorities in the United Kingdom have created a strong cultural presence for Islam in Europe.

As during the Ottoman period, Turks are again widely viewed as representing all Muslims in Europe. Samuel Huntington, father of the notorious “clash of civilizations” thesis, has warned Europeans about the adverse consequences of EU membership for Turkey. From Huntington’s perspective, European civilizational identity is threatened: if Turkey becomes a part of Europe with its population of 70 million, 75 percent of whom are under the age of 25, together with the at least 15 million Muslim immigrants already in Europe, Islam will weaken, if not altogether overwhelm, Western culture and civilization in Europe at some point in the future. In short, Turkey is alleged to have a different cultural-religious history from that of Europe, and with it, an incompatible value system. In late 2002, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, former president of France and chairman of the drafting committee of the European Constitution, bluntly stated that an unbridgeable cultural divide existed between Turkey and Europe, that Turkey was not a European country and that its membership would bring about the end of the EU. He added that many European government leaders shared his point of view, but dared not say so in public.

No matter what will happen in the future, Turkey has already became a major concern in the internal politics of the EU countries. A pivotal member of the EU, France, is one battlefield where the opposition to the proposed European Constitution uses the “Turkish question” in their own campaign to defeat the constitutional agenda. French President Jacques Chirac has promised to consult French voters in a referendum before voting to admit Turkey to the EU. The newly elected Pope Benedict VI has made no secret of his strong opposition to Turkish membership. “Thank God, the Vatican is not a member of the EU!” Erdoğan quipped recently.

The ghosts of the Ottoman imperial armies at the gates of Vienna in 1683 have not been banished. Before the empire was “the sick man of Europe,” it was “the terror of Europe.” Memories on both sides are still vibrant. Leftover features of Ottoman rule in the Middle East, Cyprus and the Balkans continue to fuel national conflicts. Turks remember with nostalgia the glorious past of the Ottomans; indeed, it allows them to believe that they can again play an important role in world politics. The recent emergence of a new Ottomanism in Turkey encourages this nostalgia. On the other side, US incursions into the Middle East, backed by the resurgent Christian right in the United States, recall the torments of the Crusades, as well as the more recent experiences of European colonialism.

Evet or Hayir

In general, the Turkish public has echoed the positive reaction of the AKP to the December decision of the EU. It has been a long, arduous wait for the Turkish government, with many disappointments along the way, and they are eager to answer an EU invitation with a resounding evet (yes). But even while the decision was being celebrated, Turkish doubts emerged about whether these negotiations can ever lead to accession.

Several groups in Turkey were not at all comfortable with the December 2004 development. The right-wing nationalists, represented by National Action Party, have long been opposed to Turkish membership in the EU and have heavily criticized the AKP. They blame the government for sacrificing Turkish national identity, giving unnecessary rights to minorities that eventually will fragment Turkey and giving up Cyprus just to become a member of the EU. They attack the process as a historic mistake. They argue that the December decision was only the AKP’s success and should not be celebrated as a victory for Turkey. The National Action Party considers itself to be a viable alternative to the AKP, and enjoys popularity especially with conservative Turkish youth.

Meanwhile, unanticipated developments in Turkish cultural life have increased the trepidation all around. Mein Kampf has sold nearly 100,000 copies in Turkey in the six months since December, a fact that is difficult to explain but that certainly confirmed for many Europeans the persistence of strong anti-democratic sentiments in Turkey. A novel about a US invasion of Turkey, referring to Bush administration officials by name, also became a bestseller. More shockingly for liberal Turks, the novel was discussed favorably on serious TV talk shows. Mainstream Turks, the Bush administration and the EU have interpreted these “cultural events” as disturbing indications of a revival of an intense nationalistic sentiment that could mobilize economically deprived, unemployed Turkish youth. The National Action Party is also known for its activity among Turkish workers in Europe, particularly in Germany. At the same time, the new Ottomanism has been giving rise to a cultural awakening after many years of neglect. The combination of the two, if they should become united, could produce a strong nationalist movement in Turkey that might eventually cut Turkish ties with Europe and the United States. Anti-Americanism in Turkey is at its highest point in history. The Iraq war was too close to home, and it reawakened Turkey’s nightmares about Kurdish separatism. Additional developments, including the recent decision by the EHRC that ordered Turkey to retry the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Abullah Ocalan, angered Turks across the political spectrum and caused even mainstream Turks to question the desirability of being part of Europe.

Another criticism of the turn toward Europe came from the far left. Despite the political insignificance of the left, their influence over Turkish intellectuals remains important, especially in Ankara and Istanbul where the main political games are played. The left regards the EU as a capitalist imperialist power, along with the United States. It calls attention to the economic burdens of the EU for the Turkish middle class, working class and agricultural sector, the latter being traditionally the domain of the vast Anatolian population. Most of the criticism was technically grounded on adverse economic effects, and many AKP followers were persuaded, at least to some extent. The EU report on accession negotiations imposes many hidden economic, environmental and agricultural conditions that are difficult for any government to swallow, and could require those who accept them to pay a high political price.

The usual suspects in the anti-EU roll call are the hardline Islamists. Their political views are based on an anti-Western philosophy, and they see the West — the EU in general, and the United States specifically — as the enemy of Islam. Their fear is that, having already been under siege by Kemalism since the foundation of the modern Turkish state, traditional Islamic values will completely disappear upon entry into the EU, due to the influence of the dominant Christian culture. Like the left, this group is politically insignificant. However, they have shown their capacity to influence apolitical traditional Muslims everywhere, so why not in Turkey? This contingency is exactly what secular Turks fear. Strangely enough, and in reaction to the emerging political Islam, militant secularists are also fearful about the EU. They think that the democratic values and limitless freedom of religion of Europe are not beneficial for Turkey. If Turkey accepts European values without making proper provision, they believe, the country will lose its most precious value — namely, “secularism.” The military is still strong in Turkey, despite its somewhat curtailed role after the latest legal reforms. Turkish public opinion still finds the military a more reliable institution than political parties. The military maintains its self-proclaimed guardianship over Turkish secularism, Kemalism and nationalism.

If all these anti-EU groups should ever come together, a Turkish referendum on membership in the EU could return a resounding answer of hayir (no). If this were to happen, it would shock Europe and profoundly alter the course of Turkish political development and foreign policy.

How to cite this article:

Hilal Elver "Reluctant Partners," Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005).
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