Not European enough, too powerful to be ignored. Image: Rengim Mutevellioglu

Is the EU afraid of Ankara?

Following recent declarations by the Turkish Prime Minister on the deportation of Armenian immigrants, Europe's silence is testimony to the EU's ambiguous attitude towards the aspiring member state. Seen as not sufficiently European for immediate inclusion, Turkey is at the same time too important and powerful to be ignored.

Published on 25 March 2010 at 10:54
Not European enough, too powerful to be ignored. Image: Rengim Mutevellioglu

Imagine if Angela Merkel threatened to deport undocumented Turks, because she did not appreciate a declation in Ankara on the subject of the Holocaust. Such a reaction on the part of the German Chancellor would prompt a huge outcry, because everyone expects Germany to take full responsibility for the darkest chapter in its history and to comply with international law, which unequivocally forbids collective punishments. However, there was no strong condemnation from any European country when, last week, the Turkish Prime Minister, irritated by the international reprimands on the subject of the Armenian genocide, threatened to deport "100,000 natives of the Republic of Armenia who are living without residence permits in Turkey." The silence that followed Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sally was more than surprising. And the European Union has continued to hold its peace on the matter in official statements.

Why has there been no response? You might be tempted to think that European authorities are resigned to considering Turkey, which is nonetheless a candidate for enlargement, as a country apart that does not have to be judged with regard to the standards and values that the Union claims to promote. No, they are behaving as if they were afraid of "losing Turkey," the world's 17th-ranked industrial power, a key link in Europe's energy supply chain, a "strategic pawn of the West" and a "bridge between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim civilizations."

Shoe-horning Turkey into the Union

In private, the same European leaders acknowledge that, notwithstanding the real progress that has been made, Turkey does not meet essential criteria for a European democracy. Its constitution (which a bill presented to the national parliament on 22 March now proposes to revise) and its penal code contain articles that are incompatible with European legal models. And although its dominance may be a thing of the past, the army remains all too powerful, while the issue of the Kurdish minority remains a major stumbling block. Recognition of the Armenian genocide is still a taboo subject, in spite of the thousands of signatures collected by the "I apologise" petition launched by a group of progressive Turkish intellectuals. And even if the conservative Muslim democratic AKP, which is currently in power, styles itself as a political moderate, its reign has coincided with an increasing albeit slow-moving Islamisation of Turkish society and institutions.

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Confronted by their own doubts, European partisans of Turkish enlargement are wondering how the country can be shoe-horned into the Union, in view of limited public support for the plan to make Ankara a new European capital. But they are also worried by a more immediate concern: Turkish exasperation with European equivocation on the issue is now palpable. Although Turkish leaders continue to insist that they want their country anchored in Europe, they are beginning to allude to possible alternatives and the fact that Turkey may choose to go its own way.

Conscious of its demographic, economic, cultural, geopolitical, and lay-religious advantages, Turkey no longer sees itself as a state on the borders of Europe with a mission to defend Western interests in one of the world's most tormented regions. It views itself as a country that can play "a central role," with the capacity to define its own vision and interests — and this is already evident in its independent positions on Iraq, Israel and Iran, which are clearly distinct from those adopted by Europe and the United States. Having acquiesced to some of "Brussel's demands," Turkey now appears less willing to make concessions. In the negotiation process, it discovered the real implications of inclusion in the EU — notably a loss of sovereignty that would undermine fundamental aspects of the Turkey's state system and political culture.

Turkish question in conflict with European project

In other words, if Turkey became a member of the European Union and at the same time maintained what a significant proportion of its leaders and Turkish public opinion consider to be non-negotiable elements in any deal with Europe (uncompromised nationalism, the primacy of Sunni Islam, Turkism etc.), its accession would effectively modify the nature of the European democratic model. The "Turkish question" cannot be resolved by the granting of British or Danish style exemptions and opt-outs, because it is clearly in conflict with the post-nationalist and pluralist political model that underlies the European project. The Turkish public has yet to fully understand this model, which has only been fully accepted by a "lay-liberal" and Islamic Modernist elite that may be growing but still remains a minority.

Turkey and the European Union are now embroiled in a deadlock where both parties are being forced to define the values that they believe to be non-negotiable. This is not a matter of business and development strategy. The issues have fundamental implications for the future planning and destiny of both European and Turkish society. And at this existential moment, it is clear that Turkey is not alone in having to cope with a difficult political position.


Constitutional reform sows discord

On 22 March, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's moderate Islamist government presented a bill which aims to update the current constitution adopted in the wake of a period of military rule in 1982 to comply with European standards. The bill notably includes provisions that will curtail military involvement in political life and the management of institutions. The Kemalist opposition and the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, are contesting "amendments to the Constitution they believe will lead Turkey to disaster," explains Milliyet, which notes that changes will allow for "more control over the judiciary." The government argues that the reform aims to "extend the scope of democracy" and to apply restriction to the powers of judiciary to the judiciary that have already been applied to the armed forces, and this in compliance with reforms expected by the European Union. Will the reform, shortly to be the subject of a parliamentary vote, actually succeed? "No-one knows", Milliyet writes. "Turkey is so divided that a compromise seems unattainable".

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