Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey and the European Union: Keeping a Friendly Distance

Turkey and the European Union: Keeping a Friendly Distance

The alienation between Turkey and the EU has grown on both sides to the point that more and more people in Brussels and Ankara are beginning to realize that not only is Turkey’s EU membership unlikely, but that it is not in the interest of either party.

The immediate problem is Cyprus, where the EU has committed every error possible, and an issue which more than any other unites all Turks. To begin with, the EU’s decision to admit Greek Cyprus as a full member was made apparently without a full understanding of the implications. In April 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s plan for reunification—which 65 percent of Turkish Cypriot voters approved—was rejected by the Greek Cypriots by over 75 percent in a referendum. But Brussels went ahead with the admission of Greek Cyprus anyway, even though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had risked all his political capital (and perhaps the existence of his government) to pressure the Turkish Cypriots to accept the plan. He did so even though he was fully aware that, once Cyprus was in the EU, Nicosia would be in a position to demand more and more concessions from Ankara. Meanwhile, under Greek pressure, the EU continues to punish, through blockade and isolation, the Turkish side, while threatening Ankara for not opening its ports to the Greeks. As correctly perceived in Turkey, Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriots made all the unpopular concessions and received only humiliation from Brussels.

The more long-term and profound issue is the EU’s political demands on Turkey, demands that are a case study of contradiction and confusion. Turkey has complied with many of Brussels’ demands—constitutional changes regarding human rights, freedom of expression, minority rights, etc. Kurds now have the right to use their own language and have a Kurdish media, again against popular sentiment and well-founded fears of Kurdish separatism. The EU continues to push, often vocally and, in the eyes of many in Turkey, irresponsibly, for the elimination of the military’s political role and influence.

Why is this irresponsible on the EU’s part? Because, despite government denials, Islamism, including fundamentalism, has been on the rise in Turkey ever since the present Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003. That fact has been repeatedly brought to the public’s attention by Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit and Land Forces Commander Gen. Ilker Basbug. Moreover, Navy chief Admiral Yener Karahanoglu has clearly stated that “The Turkish armed forces will never make the concessions that have been asked of it on the road to the European Union.” The military leaders have a constitutional obligation to protect secularism—something that seems to have escaped notice by its Brussels’ critics. The seldom mentioned but most powerful reason for opposition to Turkey’s membership in the EU in Europe is its Muslim identity and fear of the impact some 70 million Muslim Turks in a post-religious Europe already threatened by growing Islamism among its existing 20 million Muslim residents. While that is a legitimate fear, it is counterproductive to at the same time insist on Turkey’s weakening its most powerful and popular secularist force—the military.

In Turkey, the issue of “minority rights” is directly related to the Kurdish issue and territorial integrity. At a time when the interpretation of “minority rights” especially in territorial terms, threatens the integrity of EU members such as Spain or Belgium, and Turkey itself is experiencing a limited revival of Kurdish Marxist/separatist terrorism, one experienced Turkish observer has observed that “To gain admission into the EU, Turkey is being asked to solve the problem of Kurdish separatism with the kind of methods that the EU countries have abandoned. Turkey cannot solve that problem and fight Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terror with such methods.” By pushing for more and more “rights” for a separatist minority (including PKK terrorists) within the Kurdish minority, amounting to the very same multiculturalism that is now widely under assault within Europe, Brussels demonstrates, if not a tin ear, hypocrisy.

When Turkish prosecutors bring to trial and courts condemn separatists or supporters of Armenian claims of “genocide” by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, Brussels’ human rights arbiters are prompt in criticizing Turkey for denying “freedom of expression.” But when three Dutch-Turkish politicians were purged from their parties’ electoral lists for dissenting from the Armenian interpretation of those events, the French Parliament voted to make it a crime to do so, and Jacques Chirac, traveling to Erevan, conditioned Turkey’s membership in the EU on Ankara’s recognizing the Armenian “genocide.” Whatever one’s opinion on the events of 1915 in the now-defunct Ottoman Empire—and beyond Armenian nationalist pretensions, it is hard to see the relevance of those events for today’s Turkish Republic—such attitudes suggest a persistent double-standard which, not surprisingly, is increasingly resented in Turkey.

While the European attitude toward Turkey’s membership is full of contradictions and hidden agendas, developments inside Turkey are not boding well for the country’s integration in the EU, either. The old debate over secularism, never far from the surface, has taken on a new and increasingly open intensity. Turkish nationalism is also on the rise, lately manifested as anti-Americanism. The AKP government is more attracted to its initial Islamic roots, while the new military leadership, especially Gen. Buyukanit, who took office in August, is less diplomatic than its predecessor in publicly opposing that trend.

The combination of growing Turkish nationalism and anti-Americanism (a trend in Europe as well) means, in addition to complications for the U.S. position in Iraq, that the traditional U.S. support for Turkey’s EU accession is both less enthusiastic and less effective. That is not necessarily a bad thing for Ankara: after all, is membership in the Brussels club good and necessary for Turkey’s national interest? More and more Turks are answering that question in the negative. Public support for EU membership has dropped dramatically in the past year, from 70 percent to less than 50 percent.

While for many Turks the reasons may be more emotional than objective—such pushbutton issues as the Kurdish and Armenian questions, or Cyprus, create instant resentment—there are level-headed reasons to oppose membership. First, the membership issue is directly related to issues of secularism and the role of the military; second, the issue of human rights, especially Kurdish minority rights, is inseparable from terrorism. None of these are seen as being easier to cope with under the rules imposed by Brussels.

In economic terms, considering the problems facing the EU in terms of economic growth, unemployment, and budgets, the likely benefits of membership for Turkey are increasingly hard to see. Indeed, when most of the EU members are already unhappy with the cost of the newly admitted Central and East European countries and the soon to be admitted Romania and Bulgaria, which ten new members combined have a smaller but richer population than Turkey, it is hard to see how much, if anything at all, is left for that country, in terms of both good will and funding. Moreover, Turkey already enjoys, independent of its candidacy, some of the membership benefits in areas such as tariffs and investments. It has already implemented some of the key economic reforms required by Brussels, with good results. Perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s opinion that Turkey should remain a “preferred partner” rather than member of the EU is beneficial for Turkey. It certainly is more honest than that of many of her colleagues, whose demands on Ankara are as great as their understanding and concessions are limited.