European Affairs

While Turkey's bid for EU membership is far from universally welcome in the European Union, it has also always faced political problems at home. Until the end of the 1990s, powerful political factions at either end of Turkey's political spectrum were deeply suspicious of EU membership, if not completely opposed to it. Secular nationalists objected to the transfer of sovereignty to EU institutions, while Islamists feared that Europe's Christian heritage might foil their decades-long effort to achieve a Turkish Islamic revival. As a result, Turkey's approach to the European Union has often been hesitant. Now, by pressing for the start of entry negotiations, Turkey is finally inviting the European Union to decide whether the country can meet the qualifications for EU membership, and whether it is sincere in trying to do so. In examining these questions, it will be vital for the European Union's existing members to understand the deep historical, political, cultural and religious tensions in Turkish society that have yet to be resolved. If there are continuing doubts as to whether Turkey really belongs in Europe, it is largely because the final nature of the country's modern identity is still unclear - as is that of the European Union itself.

Many hope that the negotiations, which could last ten to 15 years, will not only help to define Turkey's status in the modern world, but also provide an opportunity for the European Union to examine its own values and identity. In a sense it must do so, in order to decide whether Turkey conforms with them. The Turkish drive to become a modern, Westernized nation has been conducted predominantly by the welleducated elite, including the military, which has sought to keep the country on the secular path charted by Mustafa Kemal AtatŸrk, the founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Turkish secularism, however, is not like the American variety, which allows any kind of religion to flourish provided it does not try to impose the dictates of its theology on the public life of the nation and hence cross the often-contested line dividing church and state. Turkey's approach is more in line with the French tradition of proactively seeking to keep religion out of public life, to maintain secularity by strictly controlling religion, both in its practice and its symbols. The Turkish State, insofar as it is represented by the traditional decision making elites, still suspects that Islamist activists want to reshape society in accordance with Islamic principles. This suspicion, together with the related fear of a counter-revolution against modernization, has been the main determinant of relations between the followers of AtatŸrk and the Islamists. Turkish governments, however, have not always succeeded in following an unwavering course to what AtatŸrk called "contemporary civilization. In the last half century there have been three coups d'Žtat - in May 1960, March 1970 and September 1980 - and the 14 general elections that have been held since 1950 have produced 59 different governments, which is not a strong sign of political stability. Often, the traditional decisionmaking elites, as represented mainly by the military, the civil bureaucracy and big business, seem to have regarded modernization as a process calling for the alignment of Turkey's national interests with those of the West, but not for the adoption of Western values.

This attitude was perhaps not surprising during the Cold War, when it led Turkey, as a NATO member, to forge closer relations with the United States than with Western Europe. In Turkey's view, the tilt toward Washington was further justified by the belief that Western Europe had delegated its defense largely to the United States, in exchange for a freer hand to promote its own economic development. In these circumstances, a long stalemate ensued, both in Turkey's relations with the European Union and in the domestic Turkish political debate on EU membership. Although Turkey continued to seek the establishment of a customs union and ultimately full EU membership, neither Brussels nor Ankara was entirely candid about the realities of their relationship. It could almost be said that decision-makers on both sides were happy with the stalemate, as it relieved them of any obligation to spend political capital to resolve the deadlock.

A change in the climate came from an unexpected source - the self-proclaimed "Muslim Democrat Justice and Development Party (AKP), which took power after winning elections in November 2002. To the surprise of some commentators in the West, the AKP has passed eight "reform packages in succession, aimed at aligning Turkey more closely with values and practices in the European Union. These developments are particularly startling in that many AKP leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were once disciples of Necmettin Erbakan, the former head of the National Order Party (MNP), the first party of professed Islamic origins in modern Turkish political history, who was a bitter opponent of the European Union. In 1970, Mr. Erbakan put down two motions of no confidence against the right of center government of Suleyman Demirel for seeking closer relations with the European Union in a manner he said was "unlawful and against the national interest. Mr. Erbakan said that his party "would not allow the beloved motherland to be left to the exploitation of foreigners under the disguise of trade. Leaders of the Islamist movement from which the AKP is descended frequently labeled the European Union a "Crusader community. They believed that Turkish EU membership was being promoted by people unfaithful to the true religion, who regarded Islam as an enemy of social development but refrained from saying so openly. How then, with these antecedents, has the AKP come to proclaim EU membership a "national goal and a main pillar of its governmental program? The answer starts with the forced resignation of Mr. Erbakan as Prime Minister in 1997, following intense pressure from the military and his political opponents, and the banning of the Welfare Party, of which he was then the leader, the following year. The so-called reformist wing of the Welfare Party concluded that the radical tone of the party leadership was the greatest obstacle preventing the political Islamist movement from wining an election and holding onto power. The reformists formed a new party, the AKP, with the aim of appealing to the floating voters that traditionally constitute almost 65 percent of the electorate. To this end, AKP leaders including Mr. Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, now Foreign Minister, renounced the party's Islamist roots and laid claim to a "Muslim Democrat identity, analogous to the Christian Democrat parties of Europe. The question now is whether this apparently radical transformation is genuine. If it is not, the prospects for a successful conclusion to Turkey's EU entry negotiations will be considerably dimmer. Many of Turkey's secularists are deeply suspicious of Mr. Erdogan's change of heart, which they see as a pragmatic, tactical maneuver. They doubt political Islam's ability to transform itself, and find plenty of ammunition in Mr. Erdogan's pre-AKP speeches, in which he described democracy "not as an end but as a means and upheld the principles of Islam as "the supreme determinant. It is not hard to see the legacy of that attitude in the government's recent clash with Brussels over its attempt (since withdrawn) to criminalize adultery as part of a reformed penal code. One of Mr. Erdogan's remarks - "We would be denying ourselves if we try to take Europe as our model in its entirety - provoked harsh reactions not only in the European Union but also in the mainstream Turkish media. Until then, the media had generally been very tolerant, if not supportive of the AKP. The incident highlighted the continuing divisions between the radical Islamist grassroots of the AKP and its reformist wing. In the words of a European diplomat, "Turkey's EU bid remains the AKP's top priority. But the party still has to cope with a large part of its support base that still has an idea and vision of society that is characterized by pretty conservative religious ideas and traditions. The fact that nobody knows the strength of that part of the AKP's base is a real concern, not only for Turkey's potential EU partners but also, and perhaps even more so, for the country's secular elite. An important indicator, however, is that while the AKP won an astounding 45 percent of the vote in municipal elections in March 2004, opinion polls have consistently shown that only nine to 11 percent of the electorate favor the introduction of strict Islamic sharia law.Most of Turkey's radical Islamists are also split into religious sects with divergent voting behaviors. Analysis of recent voting patterns suggests that the majority of the AKP's electoral base does not consist of hard liners, even if hard liners play a powerful role in the party organization.

There seems to be wide agreement among both EU and Turkish analysts that the AKP's determination to adopt a pragmatic and realistic attitude in dealing with setbacks will keep it on track for EU membership. Many believe that the party is ready to subordinate its Islamist ideas to the aim of getting closer to the European Union. Certainly, for the time being, the party's reformists seem to have been given a free hand to direct policy, including on EU issues. The possibility nevertheless remains that the pressures of the entry negotiations could split the party in two. That risk makes it even more important for the party for look for ways of increasing its popular appeal. The AKP's Islamic roots already make it difficult for it to govern on its own in an officially, and effectively, secular country, and the party has reached the limits of the support it can expect from its natural con- stituents. From now on, in order to sustain its power and broaden its popular base, the party needs more legitimacy or more resources, or preferably both. This is a big reason why the approach to the European Union is so important for the AKP. Party leaders are well aware that if they are to enlarge their share of the vote, they must make the case that their plans for Turkey's future include higher standards of living.Most Turks voted for the AKP not because they wanted greater role for Islam, but because they were unhappy with their material living conditions. The political future of the AKP will depend more on whether it can raise living standards than on any other issue.

One problem is that once the EU negotiations start, many Turks may quickly become disillusioned if an immediate improvement in living standards fails to materialize. However na•ve such a reaction might be, it could lead to drastic drop in support for EU membership. The almost inevitable disappointment will have to be managed very carefully, both by the Turkish government, whether it is formed by the AKP or another party, and by the EU authorities. But support for EU membership does not stem simply from economic calculations. Since the ousting of the Welfare Party from government in 1997, most political Islamists have begun to see the European Union in a new light. They now believe that EU membership could help to transform Turkey into a more relaxed secular society in which the authorities would be obliged to ease controls on religion. Their hope is that, in the name of human rights, the European Union will strongly promote religious freedoms, including lifting the ban on women wearing Muslim headscarves in Turkish public institutions, and even help establish the Islamists' right to finance and administer their own schools,. These hopes suffered a serious double blow with France's recent ban on Muslim headscarves in schools and the rejection of headscarf-related complaints from Turkish students by the European Court of Human Rights in June 2004. Nevertheless political Islamists are still confident that the process of negotiating EU membership will help to loosen the restrictions imposed under the AtatŸrk tradition.

In the words of one of their leaders, "The European Union is for sure not an ideal, an utopia or an earthly paradise, but [rather represents] a struggle to get rid of an infernal situation. The European Union is, at most, hypothetically harmful, [whereas] the nation-state status quo is actually harmful now. Arguing, correctly, that the European Union "is not a completed project, the Islamists believe that Turkish membership will help to transform it into a kind of union that is more to their liking. The problem with this view is that it has already raised expectations among hardcore AKP supporters. Failure to deliver results, in terms of greater freedom for Islam, could create great disillusionment and strengthen Islamic opposition to the European Union. If, on the other hand, such hopes were fulfilled, and EU entry looked like strengthening the role of Islam in Turkish society, there would be an even stronger counter-reaction from the secularists. This approach, however, does not represent the official position of the AKP government. And any suggestion that EU membership would somehow encourage a revival of Islam in Turkey, or the spread of Islam to the West, will be closely watched by the Turkish Armed Forces, the ultimate guardians of the AtatŸrk tradition. Nevertheless, there is a widespread belief that the traditional decision making elites are not reacting strongly against the AKP mainly because they are afraid of being criticized by the European Union for infringing civil liberties and democratic rights. This seems to apply especially to the Armed Forces, which have always seen themselves as the initiators and leading promoters of modernism and Westernization. It is for this reason that the Army, under its current Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok, has deliberately allowed the AKP government to diminish the military's traditionally heavy weight in the country's political system. During the past two years the Armed Forces have avoided any move that could be interpreted as endangering EU membership. Such a move could in fact be highly unpopular. Over the last five years public support for Turkish EU membership has dramatically increased, to around 70 percent today. According to a Eurobarometer survey published by the European Commission, about 55 percent of Turks have a positive image of the European Union. That is almost 10 percentage points higher than the average in the 15 countries that were EU members before the latest enlargement, and 15 percentage percentage points higher than in the ten new members that joined in May 2004. It is interesting, however, that while Turks are highly sympathetic to the European Union, even fewer Turks than Americans agree with the statement: "The EU should become a superpower like the United States. That attitude confirms suspicions in some quarters that Turkey will not support the evercloser European integration favored by countries like France and Germany, and might even play the role of a U.S. Trojan horse inside the European Union.While such suspicions are overly simplistic, it is true that at least for the time being Turks favor the European Union mainly as an economic and political safe haven, rather than as a player in global power games.

This is somewhat ironic, given that one of the main potential assets of Turkish EU membership is precisely that it could help the Union achieve its aim of playing a stronger role on the world stage. With the European Union's current demographic and social structures, skeptical public opinion and a lack of leadership, some analysts believe it will be difficult for Europe to become an influential participant in the global power struggles of the 21st century - not least for lack of military muscle. Seen from Ankara, Turkey is the only country apart from Russia that could bring the Euro-pean Union the resources necessary to change this picture ø and Russia is unlikely to be available for such a role. American leaders have openly promoted the idea of Turkish EU membership for this very reason. Celebrities ranging from former President Bill Clinton to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and billionaire financier George Soros have all said that Turkey, with its population of nearly 70 million, could and should provide new muscle for the European Union.

But while many European policy makers are inclined to agree with this argument, they have difficulty explaining it to their publics. Such thoughts are simply not in harmony with the spirit of the times in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, European politicians have been rather thoughtlessly conveying to their citizens that they are living in what American analyst Robert Kagan calls a, "post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity. European leaders, in fact, have done very little to promote a healthy debate on Turkey's potential role in Europe, or to persuade the general public to take a favorable view of Turkish EU membership. As a result, most Europeans look at Turkey's entry bid in terms of shortsighted political priorities and anxieties, rather than in the light of an unobstructed strategic vision. Even more seriously for Turkey, some European leaders have made statements that seem to confirm Europe's historical prejudices against the country. The Vatican has opposed Turkish EU entry, expressing the view that Europe must fight to retain its Christian identity. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, President of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has said that it would be a "mistake to equate Asia, which Turkey has always represented, with Europe, the roots of which "are those of Christianity. Former French President ValŽry Giscard d'Estaing has said that if Turkey joined the European Union, it would be "the end of Europe. One should not take Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's remark too literally. He was implying that Turkish entry would put an end to the kind of deep economic and political integration launched by the six original EU members in the 1950s, with the aim of building an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether remarks such as these, still less the comments of Cardinal Ratzinger, have served their intended purposes. On the contrary, they seem to have strengthened the argument that denying Turkey a chance of membership would constitute unfair bigotry, deriving from Europe's own crisis of identity. In this view, a refusal to open talks with Turkey would deprive the West of a great opportunity to prove that its values and ideas transcend specific cultures and civilizations and encompass all of humanity. This debate is likely to intensify, both in Europe and in Turkey, and to have a significant influence on the course of the negotiations. Many Turks argue that if the European Union is to decide whether Turkey conforms to European values, it should be able to define what those values are, and state whether they are universal or limited to the European geographical area. If the European Union stands for democracy, human rights, diversity and tolerance, as it says it does, a restricted definition of its identity based on religion, race or geography would negate those fundamental principles. In this respect, comments like those of Cardinal Ratzinger should not be viewed as mainly Turkey's problem. They rather reflect the European Union's own identity crisis. Turkey's accession is only to a limited degree about Turkey. To the extent that it is about Turkey, it is about Europe's image of Turkey, rather than how Turkey really is. And even if Turkey is different, it represents an opportunity for Europe, rather than a threat, provided Turkey embraces the European Union's fundamental values of democracy, tolerance and human rights. That is particularly true in the post 9/11 world. Europe cannot afford to draw a border at the edge of its civilization that does not include Turkey, simply because Turkey is a Muslim country with 95 percent of its landmass and population geographically outside Europe. As President Bashar al-Asad of Syria clearly stated during a recent visit to Turkey, those Middle East countries that see radical Islam as a threat are keen to be "neighbors of Europe. The rejection of Turkey's bid for EU membership would not strengthen the hands of these countries against terrorism - especially if it hindered Turkey's economic development. Nor would Turkey's exclusion from the European Union do much to prevent the increasing infiltration of Islamic values into Europe, about which some Europeans are so alarmed. That process is likely to continue whether or not Turkey joins the European Union. Indeed, London, Paris and Munich are probably already more infected by Islamic radicalism than Istanbul. In the light of current demographic trends, it is perfectly possible to argue that by the end of this century "Europe will be a part of the Maghreb, or Arab West, in the words of the eminent Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis, whether or not Turkey joins the European Union.

Nor is Turkey quite so backward economically as some European opponents of Turkish membership argue. The country's economy has come a long way since the ratification of its 1963 Association Agreement with the European Union, when Time magazine described the country as Europe's "poor sister. At that point, Turkey's GNP per capita was just $200 a year, two thirds of the country's inhabitants were illiterate, ten percent were unemployed and the population was increasing by three percent a year. Turkey exported virtually nothing except agricultural products and ran a chronic trade deficit. Turkey today bears no resemblance to a "poor sister. Its stock market, which did not exist in 1963, is now the largest in the region, and annual GNP per capita has soared to $3,300. The structure of exports has changed completely, and Turkey now sells more electrical and electronic goods abroad than agricultural products. The rate of population increase has fallen to 1.8 percent a year. While world merchandise trade increased by 17 percent between 2000 and 2003, Turkish trade rose by 76 percent. Thanks to its customs union agreement with the European Union, Turkish customs regulations have to a very large extent already been harmonized with those of the Union. While over 50 percent of Turkey's exports today go to Europe, the customs union has also helped Turkey to become more competitive in global trade.

The fact that Turkey already has a customs union with the European Union means that it would not have to make too many changes in its foreign trade regulations to become an EU member. There are, however, other areas, such as labor and environmental policies, where negotiations would be difficult. The economy is far from being a total success story. Turkey has been struggling with chronic inflation since the late 1970s. Although the inflation rate was down to 18.4 percent in 2003, and is expected to fall still farther in 2004, the continuing fragility of the economy could oblige the AKP government to seek yet another agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Despite record tourism revenue, the current account deficit is expected to reach $14.5 billion, or 4.9 percent of GDP, by the end of 2004, and Turkey is far from meeting any of the economic criteria for joining the euro. That, however, need not be an immediate worry, given that even under the most favorable hypothesis, Turkey is still many years away from joining the European Union, let alone the single currency. On the critical issue of the free movement of labor, Turkey has already declared its readiness to make concessions to meet the European Union's concerns. There are currently just over 3.5 million Turks living in the European Union, 38 percent of whom are unemployed. In Germany, home to most of the Turks in Europe, the unemployment rate for Turks is 2.5 times higher than the national level of 9.6 percent, mostly because of a lack of skills. Under such conditions, even if Turkish citizens were given the right to move freely in the European Union, estimates of an influx of between 500,000 and 4 million Turkish workers into the other EU countries are hardly realistic. Turkey needs support and encouragement to find solutions to its sociopolitical and economic problems. If enduring structural changes are to be made, however, they must come from within - Turkey's problems can be solved only by the Turks themselves. There is little point in criticizing Turkey for the slow pace with which it is implementing reforms, because Turkey's problems are so historically and socially charged that reforms must start with slow, symbolic steps before they can evolve into dramatic transformations. The horrified reactions of most Turks to the terrorist attacks in Istanbul in the autumn of 2003 show that Turkey has fundamentally chosen the path of modernism and Westernization. If Turkey failed to join the European Union, the immediate choice facing the country would not be between becoming a member of the Western bloc or an Iranian-style theocracy. A Turkey that remained outside the European Union would not be progressively overwhelmed by all sorts of radicals including Al Qaeda and its allies. That is not to deny that Turkey will remain a target for attack by Islamic militants. The country manifestly defies the thesis of Osama bin Laden and his followers that Islam, democracy and separation of church and state in any form cannot coexist in any country populated predominantly by Muslims. But that will remain the case whether or not Turkey joins the European Union. The real choice facing Turkey outside the European Union would be how far to become a genuinely Western society. It could become a Western-style democracy that placed no restrictions on civil society, enforced individual and human rights, and focused on improving the prosperity of its population. Or it could become a bulwark between the West and the Arab world with only a barely acceptable form of democracy. That would be of concern not just for Turkey, but also for the European Union, which would have to live with the consequences. It is at this point in the argument that the question is often raised as to whether Turkey could be a role model for the rest of the Muslim world, demonstrating that Islam and democracy need not be incompatible. U.S. commentators often advance this view as one of the main reasons for rapid Turkish EU entry. The issue, however, is often vastly over-simplified. In the first place, most Turks are extremely reluctant to cast their country as a role model for the Arab countries of the Middle East, which they associate with extremely negative qualities such as decline, defeat and unreliability.While it is true that Turkey is a unique example of a democratic Muslim nation state, at least with regard to its Islamic neighbors, Turkey's historical, cultural and national experience is also quite different from theirs. Turkey's history is far more deeply intertwined with that of Europe. That is, of course, one of the reasons why Turkey has been accepted as a candidate for EU membership.

It is in fact unlikely that Turkey's experience could ever be replicated in other parts of the region, or that Arab countries would try to imitate Turkey. The Arabs have regarded Turkish culture, and the Turkish version of Islam, as deviant from their own since the 8th century AD. A successful Turkish version of moderate, democratic Islam would not be without influence in the Islamic world, but few Arabs would take kindly to the idea that they should actually adopt Turkey as a model. Both Turkey's unique historical experience and Western strategic interests suggest that the country's destiny lies with Europe. The divergence between political Islam in Turkey and radical Islam elsewhere should be clearly under- stood. Both forms of Islam are extremely modern in their organization, tactics and slogans. But there is a vital difference. Unlike militant Islam, which chooses terror and anarchy as its weapons, Turkey's Islamist leaders have deliberately started to work within the established system. Turkish Muslims are also the least comfortable with the umma, or community, understanding of Islam.

A Westernized Turkey that combined the respect of individual rights with a political Islamist movement that accepted modernism and the separation church and state might not be accepted as a role model by the Arab nations of the Middle East. But as a member of the European Union, such a Turkey might help the Union to resolve some of its own identity problems.

Ahmet K. Han is a member of the faculty of the Economics and Administrative Department of Kadir Has University in Istanbul. He is also Executive Adviser to the Turkish Exporters Assembly, the umbrella organization of Turkey's exporter associations. A regular TV and press commentator, he is the international relations and political affairs editor of the magazine TURKISHTiME, published in Turkish and English by the Turkish Exporters Assembly. He was a member of the committee that prepared a report to the Turkish Economic Congress 2004, The Role of Civil Society and the Private Sector in Turkey's Relations with the EU.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.