European Affairs

Many Turks Are Unsure What Membership Will Mean     Print Email
David Tonge

David TongeThe opening of negotiations for EU membership in October 2005 is a logical extension of the national strategy pursued by the successive generations that have run the Turkish Republic since its foundation in 1923. For more than 80 years, the predominant view of Turkey’s ruling classes has been that the West should be the main source of the ideas and technology required for the country’s development.

Many Turks, however, know little about what Turkish EU membership would really mean in practice. And while opponents of EU entry remain in a minority, public opinion could prove volatile during the lengthy and arduous negotiations that lie ahead.

 

In the 12 months to spring 2005, for instance, the number of Turks who looked favorably on the European Union fell from 71 percent to 59 percent, according to a Eurobarometer opinion survey published by the European Commission. Summer and autumn then proved difficult for Turkish supporters of EU membership. As so often, disputes over Cyprus threatened to divert Turkey from looking to its own interests.

Resentment flared over what officials in Ankara saw as unkept EU promises to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots and to allow formal Turkish recognition of the Cypriot government to evolve over time. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül even considered boycotting the ceremonial opening of the negotiations in Luxembourg, and it was only after a hectic round of last-minute diplomacy that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog×an decided that Mr. Gül should attend.

According to an opinion poll by Consensus, Istanbul, 60 percent of Turks agreed with Mr. Erdog×an’s decision to send Mr. Gül to Luxembourg. But the brinkmanship that preceded the formal opening of negotiations was a clear omen of the many potential difficulties lurking along the tortuous path to actual EU entry. In addition, the current state of EU-Turkish relations will not remain static. During the course of the negotiations, which could last as long as five to ten years, there are likely to be significant changes both in the European Union and in Turkey itself.

A survey recently conducted by Consensus Research suggests that positive feelings about the European Union far outweigh negative attitudes among the general Turkish public (See Chart above). But the survey offered only relatively general options and sought to elicit impressions, rather than to measure knowledge about how the European Union works.

Most Turks, for instance, believe that Ankara is now going to enter into a give-and-take debate with Brussels over what EU membership will involve for Turkey. Few appreciate that the purpose of the negotiations is not to discuss the nature of Turkish membership, but merely to establish the speed at which Turkey will apply the EU’s existing laws, policies and practices. As the negotiators take up the various chapters into which the talks have been divided by the European Commission, different groups will find themselves affected. When this happens, today’s relative consensus may break up – or be replaced by new alliances between groups better served than others by EU membership.

Turkish opinion will also be influenced as much by developments in the European Union as by what happens at home. EU member states will probably not be asked to give final approval to Turkish membership until 2010 to 2012 at the earliest. By then, the European Union will be very different from today, in ways that are as yet unknown. Will the Union, for example, have found resumed growth and confidence, and feel it needs a youthful country like Turkey? Or will it be a stagnant and riven community, weighed down by unemployment, smothered by bureaucracy and indecision, and mired in the type of social problems that erupted in France in November 2005? Will the Middle East have settled down, or will it still be enflamed by continuing conflict and instability, marginalizing Turkey to the role of isolated frontier outpost it assumed during the Cold War?

The answers to these questions will clearly influence the willingness of the European Union’s current and future members to admit a country of 80 million people, with significant regional disparities and an income per head one-sixth of their own. Not only have two EU member states, France and Austria, already opened the gates to domestic opposition by committing themselves to referendums on Turkish entry when the time comes, but a negative and rejectionist approach by Europe is liable to engender matched hostility in Turkey. And the type of Union that emerges from the current crisis over the rejection of its proposed constitution will determine the nature of the role model and the inspiration that it can offer Turkey. Today, support for EU membership in Turkey involves a motley coalition of the following main elements:

• Industrialists who want unimpeded access to EU markets

• Labor unionists hoping for more jobs and greater freedoms

• Members of the country’s secular majority, who believe that the European Union offers a safer and more prosperous future for their children and a more stable democracy

• Islamicists who believe that EU membership will protect their freedom of expression

• Minorities like the Alevis, Armenians, Kurds and Greek Orthodox Christians, who trust the Union to erode historical discriminations

• Those like President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who believe that, while membership may be a mixed blessing, the social, economic, structural and environmental reforms that will be required in the negotiations are all to Turkey’s advantage.

All these elements are held together by the glue of the conventional belief that Turkey’s future lies with the West, and that Europe represents this future. So far, opponents of EU entry have been less in evidence, although that could change as the negotiations proceed, particularly if the European Union adopts attitudes that appear to infringe on Turkey’s perception of its own traditions and interests. Those currently hostile to EU entry include:

• A good proportion of the country’s many nationalists, concerned at EU interference in matters of perceived national prestige such as Cyprus, the handling of the Kurds, and the fate of the Armenians during World War I.

• Members of the armed forces disturbed at increasing civilian control over the military and its budget

• Those Islamicists who see Europe as a Christian club. Their arguments were strengthened in November 2005, when the European Court of Human Rights rejected an appeal by a Turkish student against her exclusion from university for wearing a turban.

• Traditionalists anxious at the threat to Islamist values, which, they believe, hold Turkey together.

As the negotiations proceed, political parties are likely to provide a less reliable guide to opinion than in many other countries, because of their fluid nature and the weakness of the Turkish political system. This was demonstrated in the 2002 elections, when the three parties that had governed the country for the previous three years (one center-left, one center-right and one nationalist) suffered a devastating collapse in voter support to 14.7 percent, from 53.4 percent in 1999.

The two traditional leftist parties also proved fragile, with their vote falling from 30.9 percent to 20.6 percent. Mr. Erdog×an’s new Justice and Development Party (AKP), offspring of an Islamist party that won 15.4 percent in the 1999 elections, surged to 34.28 percent and won by far the largest representation in Parliament. This volatility has continued. By late 2005, four of the ten parties that fought the 2002 elections effectively no longer existed, and another was stumbling.

Where the European Union is concerned, traditional labels can be misleading. As Cem Duna, former Turkish Ambassador to the European Union, points out, two parties with strong nationalist stances were members of the coalition that pushed through reforms to 32 articles of the Turkish Constitution so as to conform to EU requirements.

Looking ahead, Mr. Erdog×an’s governing AKP party appears likely to continue to support the entry negotiations, and the nationalistic Peoples Party (CHP), the main opposition, to resist all the AKP’s actions. Deniz Baykal, the CHP’s leader, insists that, while he favors EU entry, the policies of the AKP are not protecting Turkey’s interests. His opportunistic negativism would matter less were the CHP not heir to a tradition that imbues much of the civil service.

Whether either of these parties starts seriously resisting the European Union’s demands will depend very much on the stands Brussels takes on matters important to the Turks’ self-image. The most critical of these is arguably the question of national cohesion. As a result of their tortured history in the century up to 1923, when at least seven countries invaded what is now Turkey, most Turks are unusually sensitive to threats to their borders.

The Kurdish problem is seen as such a threat, and one that has been much enhanced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and American support for the Kurdish entity in the north of Iraq. Europe, too, is widely perceived as favoring an independent Kurdistan that would threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity. A second issue is the alleged genocide of the Armenians. Ankara fears that any acceptance of mistakes by the Ottoman Empire would open the door to demands for compensation and territory.

Similar anxiety surrounds a complex controversy over the status of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, whose role has been severely restricted by the Turkish government, but who seeks wider recognition. Human rights groups, EU governments and the United States have long protested these restrictions.

On all these issues, however, the situation is far better that it was two decades ago, when they could hardly be discussed. Today, these questions are debated by writers, film makers, journalists and the country’s increasingly important non-governmental organizations. In May, a university conference on the Armenian issue had to be cancelled as a result of security threats and a nationalist campaign against it. In September, Mr. Erdog×an himself asked the three universities concerned to hold the event, which, after some legal maneuvers, they eventually did.

Also potentially divisive is the treatment of religious minorities, whether they be Christian – Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, Jacobite (Syrian Orthodox) or Catholic – or Muslim. Alevis appear to make up as much as 20 percent of the population, but their religious and educational practices are systematically ignored by the current state machinery. Alevis, as the followers of the Caliph Ali are known, are the Turkish version of Shiites.

A confrontational approach by the European Union on these issues, or on Cyprus, could significantly strengthen the relatively small band of those opposing EU membership for fear it would threaten national sovereignty. Perhaps because the implications of accession are still not fully understood in Turkey, this concern is currently less important than in some existing EU member states. But there is no shortage of Turkish politicians ready to make sovereignty an issue if given the chance. Economic interest groups, once dubious of the benefits of free trade with Europe, have mainly come around to supporting EU entry, although some uncertainties remain. The vocal Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD), which represents the larger private sector groups, once firmly opposed ending protection for Turkish industry. But the organization played an active, positive role in preparing the start of the entry negotiations, and its support now seems solid and likely to endure. Turkey’s private sector already does an annual $65 billion of trade with the European Union, and does not wish to see it jeopardized.

More questionable is the stand of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Industry (TOBB), which speaks for smaller businesses. In the autumn of 2005, this association campaigned against foreigners buying national jewels such as the Ereg×li Iron & Steel Works Co., also known as Erdemir. The association has since insisted it favors foreign investment in Turkey, but its position could evolve further as the interests of its members come into play in the negotiations.

The media are also likely to play a big role in the debate. The Dogan Group, which Turkey’s Competition Board allows to exercise a remarkable hold over television, newspapers, and magazines, has a long tradition of exploiting nationalistic sentiment. Its Hurriyet, under previous ownership, did much to fan the flames that led to anti-Greek riots in September 1954. Like, say, the press owned by Rupert Murdoch in the UK, it will surely campaign against a number of the demands made of Turkey.

Labor unions, non-governmental organizations, academics and think tanks are all less influential today than in most EU member states. Their voices are bound to grow louder, however, as Turkey continues its transition from a rural to an industrial society, as the village mind-set of today’s leaders, such as those of the AKP, comes into sharper conflict with the urban values of other parties, and as the country struggles to keep a balance between secularism and Islam. It will be a heated debate, and undoubtedly most players, particularly those opposed to the European Union’s demands, will seek to draw the country’s armed forces into it.

For now, the leaders of the armed forces appear to support EU membership. They believe that Turkey should have a voice in any common European defense policy and – particularly in the light of U.S. support for the Kurds – are concerned about over-dependence on Washington. On the other hand, ASAM, a think tank close to the armed forces that is led by the redoubtable former ambassador Gündüz Aktan, is an articulate exponent of the problems raised by EU membership.

The middle ranks, already restive at the current leadership’s relatively warm relationship with the anti-secular AKP, resent EU criticism of the traditionally strong political influence of the Turkish military. The National Security Council, which groups generals and politicians, has been downgraded to an “advisory” role and is now headed by a civilian. The military budget has been brought under parliamentary scrutiny. And now the European Union is asking why generals are allowed to make political statements and enjoy higher protocol rankings than the Minister of Defense. Where, these officers ask, will it end?

One thing, however, is certain. Turkey will continue to change as the negotiations proceed. The Turkey of 2005 is already radically different from the Turkey of 1995, let alone the Turkey of 1985, which had only recently emerged from three years of military rule. Today’s Turkey is a better place for its citizens to live in, and a sounder partner for Europe, than ever before. The Turkey of 2010 to 2012, when membership might just be close to a reality, is likely to have advanced significantly farther along that road.


David Tonge is Managing Director of IBS Research & Consultancy, which conducts research for international energy and industrial companies in Turkey and Central Asia. www.ibsresearch.com. He formerly reported for the BBC from Ankara and Athens and was Diplomatic Correspondent of the Financial Times.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 4 in the Fall of 2005.