Ensuring your people’s prosperity is no longer enough to avoid being challenged. Turkey is due to record 3.2 per cent growth in 2013 and 4 per cent growth in 2014, according to European Commission forecasts as compared to -0.4 per cent and 1.2 per cent for the Eurozone respectively.
But hundreds of thousands of people have come out into the street to challenge the politics and power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And the demonstrations seem to be here to stay even if they have lost some of the spectacular violence of the early days.
The economic and social situation is not the primary reason for the conflict, which first emerged as a result of an urban planning project in Istanbul. This is the first difference between the situation in Turkey and the Arab Spring, with which the movement in Taksim Square has been widely compared.
A second difference is that Erdoğan is not a tyrant who has hoarded power for the benefit of a small clan without any consideration for the wellbeing of his people and the health of his country. The leader of the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, has been elected three times in fair elections and has a popularity rating that would be the envy of several European leaders.
It is also paradoxical to want to identify Turkish events with those from the Arab world after having talked of Turkey’s European leaning for so long. But for 10 years, advocates of Turkey’s accession to the EU have confused the modernisation policy led by Erdoğan with a desire to “Europeanise” his country.
Except if you believe that European civilisation can be boiled down to economic growth and new shopping centres, or that Europe has an intellectual monopoly on the smallest democratic measure outside the EU, the Turkish prime minister’s ambition for his country did not make it an ideal candidate for accession. The demonstrators in Taksim Square have just reminded us that the AKP’s project is setting out a particular path in line with Turkey’s multiple and sometimes contradictory identities. As a bridge between two continents, a crossroads for several cultures, Muslim, post-Ottoman and Kemalist.
This policy had the great advantage of bringing Turkey out of its role as a strategic pawn of NATO and as a supplier of cheap labour. Turkey is now a major trade partner and a political power that can be counted on. And the Turkish diaspora, with its often dual-nationality and multicultural youth, can now go and to and fro between itself and a dynamic country, to everyone’s benefit.
It is this Turkish youth, open to the world and which has experienced the results of the growth driven by Erdoğan, which is leading the conflict against him. This is because it aspires to a quality of life that cannot be boiled down to opportunities. This youth and the demonstrators of all ages who follow it, are worried about the environment, want to escape the clutches of religion and wants to be listened to and respected by the authorities.
For the European Union, which, four days before the Istanbul demonstrations, announced its wish to relaunch accession discussions, the situation is uncomfortable. Is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who describes the demonstrators as “terrorists” and has locked up more journalists than China or Iran, continue to be the guarantor of good EU-Turkey relations? Is his interest in the Russian and Chinese models still compatible with the strategic objectives and principles of the EU?
In spite of everything, Erdoğan still has a broad political base and neither the Kemalists nor the Kurds, nor the communists nor the Alevis represent a credible alternative to his power for the moment. Having equivocated for half a century, the EU needs to ask itself what Turkey means to it and what relationship it wants to build with it. While part of the Turkish people aspire to more freedom, a permanent halfway house situation would be the worst choice.