IS TURKEY FINALLY waking up from its dream of joining the European Union?
During the past six weeks EU politicians excoriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in a Turkish constitutional referendum, which transforms the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, concentrating wide powers in the presidency. The constitutional changes go into effect after the 2019 Turkish general elections, and if Erdogan is re-elected, he’d become a powerful “executive president.” These Europeans, and many Turks, see that making him an “authoritarian” ruler. Some of them demanded and end to negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU. Others argued that Turkey would be unable to adopt “European values,” which EU members are required to observe. Those values include democracy, the rule of law, human rights and minority rights.
In response, Erdogan threatened to hold a new “Brexit-like referendum,” asking the Turks if they wanted to join the European bloc at all. Over the years many Turks have been turned off by what they consider a discriminatory stance of a “Christian club” toward their Muslim nation. A poll taken in 2014 found that only 28 percent of Turks viewed EU membership as “a good thing,” compared to more than two-thirds of them who did so in the 1990s and early 2000s.
At any rate, tempers have cooled lately among politicians on both sides. Never mind, says the EU foreign policy chief. Federica Mogherini has announced that the talks on the the 30-year-old Turkish membership application would continue. “It is not suspended,” she insisted. “It hasn’t ended.” And last week Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, confirmed her announcement. He said “there is no question” of breaking off those talks.
I have been predicting, though, that Turkey would never join the European bloc, not as a full member, anyway. I came to this conclusion nearly two decades ago, and nothing has happened since to change my opinion. During 1998-1999 I was conducting fieldwork in Europe and Turkey on how a Turkish Islamic surge would affect Ankara’s bid to join the European bloc. I had a fellowship with the German Marshall Fund of the United States to do the project.
On August 2, 1998, at the end of a long interview with Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, he asked what I had learned about Europeans’ attitudes toward Turkey’s EU membership. I told him that “I’d be surprised” if his country would ever become a “full member” of the bloc. The mayor didn’t seem to be convinced. Four months before, he had been convicted by a State Security Court for reciting an Islamic poem at a public meeting, which the judges said had incited “hatred based on religious difference.” Turkey was then a radically secular state and Erdogan had been known as a gung-ho activist of the Islamist Welfare Party. I interviewed him when he was packing to vacate the mayor’s office and await an anticipated jail sentence from the State Security Court. He told me that he would be working to have Turkey “join the [European] Union.”
Contrary to what I had heard about him, Erdogan disputed my characterization of him as an “Islamist” and asserted twice that he believed that the Turkish government should be “secular,” and that religion should be a “private matter.” He was no more an Islamist than Helmut Kohl was a Christian fundamentalist, he said. Kohl was then chancellor of Germany, belonging to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). I’d learn later that Erdogan, Parliament members Abdullah Gul (later president) and Bulent Arinc (later speaker of Parliament) and a number of other former Welfare Party activists were about to leave the Islamist movement and form a conservative Muslim party. Polls had shown that two out of three Turkish Muslims, religious as they were, had been leery about Islamism.
Soon after his newly formed Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won the 2002 parliamentary elections, Erdogan set out for a whirlwind trip through Europe, pushing the Turkish accession case to EU governments and elites. The Turkish leader reiterated to them that he was a “secular” politician who had no intention of setting up an Islamist government. And he began making continual visits to the United States (Yesterday was his 13th visit to the White House), meeting government officials and intellectuals, including some neoconservatives, and trying to dispel the notion that he or the AKP had an Islamist agenda. He also talked about his pursuit of Turkey’s EU membership.
On December 10, 2002, the day before his first visit to the White House to meet then President George W. Bush, Erdogan told me in Washington that he would be asking the U.S. president to “say a good word” to EU leaders about the Turkish case. Bush did just that, and in December 2005 the EU began Turkish accession talks. I read news reports about some Turkish politicians were optimistic about their finally joining the Europeans, which had been a consuming mission of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
I still didn’t expect to see Muslim Turks showing up in Brussels to join discussions about the policies and priorities of the bloc. I didn’t think “democratic deficit” and “poor human rights record” were the real sources of the EU’s angst about Turkish accession, even though these shortcoming were routinely mentioned as Turkey’s disqualification for bloc membership.
If you have European friends or observed Europeans’ attitudes toward the Turks closely, you’d know what dismays them most about having Turks in Europe. Julius Ray Behr, an architect in Berlin, was quite candid to me about it. During a 2000 trip I asked him about his take on the Turks’ efforts to join the EU. Were they trying achieve “in Brussels what they could not accomplish in Vienna”? he replied, laughing. He was referring to the Ottoman army’s 1683 attack on Vienna, which was repulsed by the city’s Austrian and Polish defenders, putting an end to the Ottoman Empire’s thrust toward Western Europe. A burly, graying man in his late 50s or early 60s, Behr suggested that if the Turks, then about 60 million, were allowed to join the bloc, they would mess up Europe’s “social and cultural life,” infusing Islam into it.
I heard the argument before and since. Since the Dark Ages, Continental Europe has been a white racial monochrome, and Europeans violently resisted the presence of other racial and cultural strains in their midst. Beginning in the late 15th century, Jews and Muslims, who had lived in Europe for centuries, suffered waves after waves of slaughter, forced conversion to Christianity and expulsion from the Continent. Most of those Jewish and Muslim refugees were welcomed with open arms in Muslim Turkey and Levant. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, Jews were detested as “Christ killers” and Muslims as heathens. Post-Enlightenment, they were scorned as inferior races. The Holocaust was the final episode of whitening Europe’s social and cultural texture.
Erdogan, as I observed him, is a passionate, willful man, who isn’t quite acculturated to Western democratic institutions and practices. He’s not very tolerant of dissent as would be, for example, Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. Erdogan and his government say, however, that the current political and social turmoil has been spawned by the old ultra-secular Kemalists establishment. Kemalists are follower of Kemal Ataturk’s laicist, anti-Islamic ideology, who have been campaigning for the secularization and Europeanization of Turkish society and culture. Having been roundly defeated in successive elections, many of them have made common cause with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been trying to topple the AKP government through undemocratic means. In 1999 Turkish intelligence found Gulen colluding with his associates to destabilize the then secular government in Ankara, and the cleric dashed into exile in the United States to evade arrest and prosecution.
Gulen has, or had, an extensive network of followers in Turkish police, judiciary and military. The military, the self-appointed “guardian” of Kemalism, continually overthrew democratically elected governments until the AKP came to power in 2002. The military brass, Kemalists and Gulenists have had a hard time accepting the AKP government, despite it being elected democratically. In 2007 the army high command issued a threatening memorandum opposing the election of Abdullah Gul as president, arguing that the headscarf worn by his wife, Heyrunnisa, would violate the secularist tradition of the presidential palace. The Kemalist opposition in the parliament, which used to elect presidents, also decided to boycott the vote. The AKP responded with a snap election, which it won handily, neutralizing military-Kemalist resistance to Gul’s election as president.
CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT
The next year Kemalist prosecutors sued the AKP in the Constitutional Court, demanding the party be banned because it had become a “center of anti-secular activities.” The Constitutional Court had, at the bidding of the army and Kemalist elites, outlawed five political parties one after another. This time, though, the AKP survived because only six judges, instead of the required seven, supported the motion to ban it. This was followed by other Kemalist and Gulenist court cases against Erdogan government. The abortive military coup last July, which the government says was masterminded by Gulen, was the latest attempt so far to overthrow the Erdogan government.
Reacting to these subversive actions, especially the failed coup, the AKP regime launched a widespread crackdown on Gulenist and Kemalist dissidents. It has jailed thousands of political dissidents and fired thousands of others from their jobs in the police, judiciary, bureaucracy and military. Several media outlets have been shut down, and scores of journalists thrown behind the bar. Many Kemalists and Gulenists obviously have supported or joined destabilizing activities or the abortive coup. But many innocent citizens appear also to have been caught up in the fray and lost their jobs or suffered detention or prison terms. Given the mounting opposition to Erdogan and his government, I won’t be surprised to see them defeated in the next or a subsequent election.
But Erdogan and the AKP will be remembered for ending the 90-year-long military and Kemalist pseudo-autocracy in Turkey and ushering in full-fledged, or nearly so, democracy. In one bold move after another the Erdogan government purged the military of many of its coup-mongering officers; reformed the military-dominated National Security Council, bringing it under civilian control; stripped the Constitutional Court of its power to ban political parties; disbanded the clandestine West Study Group (BGG), a cell within the army, which collected intelligence on politicians and planned coups; expanded freedom of the press and expression; introduced a new Penal Code, abolishing torture by police and security personnel; guaranteed individual rights, which was subordinated to the demand of whatever law-enforcement agencies decided was the “security of the state”; restored the use of the Kurdish language and celebration of Kurdish symbols cultural events, banned since the founding of the state; and so on.
The government has rolled back many of the democratic reforms it carried out. I expect these lapses to be remedied by this regime or its successors. I don’t believe that the Turks, having tasted the blessings of freedom and democracy, will revert to the Kemalist era again. They demonstrated their new, indomitable spirit of freedom during the coup attempt last July when everyday Turks, responding to Erdogan’s televised call, poured into the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, braved military bombs and bullets, chased and assaulted rebel troops and crushed the uprising in hours. That was the first time in history the Turks challenged and quashed a military putsch.
DEMOCRACY’S BIRTH PANGS
Formative phases of most democracies – including the United States, Britain, France and Germany – have always been marked by similar and more dire mayhem: civil wars, ethnic and religious strife, and authoritarian governance. Some of the newer democracies within the EU are also going through their birth pangs. Look at the post-Communist democracies of Hungary and Poland. Freedom House has lamented a “spectacular breakdown of democracy” in the two countries, and human rights watchdogs and media pundits have denounced their “autocratic” governments. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has all but silenced political dissent through continual crackdowns, suppressed press freedom, persecuted his opponents, and proudly declared Hungary an “illiberal state.” He says Western European “liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), has passed laws flouting parliamentary rules, weakened the country’s highest court, stifled the press, appointed loyalists to civil service and government-run media organizations. He has turned the public television broadcaster TVP into a PiS party station. (Critics call it TVPiS!). PiS has gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure the victory of its candidates. And so on.The problem is that both Orban and Kaczynski continue to win elections, the former has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. European politicians and news media continue to criticize their autocratic rule. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, met Orban at the EU’s Riga summit and greeted him: “Hello dictator!”
Yet few Europeans are calling for Hungary’s or Poland’s expulsion from the EU, just as few would like to have the Turks in the bloc. Ask a Turk why, and he or she would tell you that Poles and Hungarians have the right faith and skin tone, and more of less blend in the cultural monochrome that Europe has been for the past two millennia. Turkey, with its Muslim population of 90 million, would rupture that cultural harmony. Echoing the German architect Behr, Remy Leveau, a political science professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Institute of Political Studies of Paris), told me the “real problem” hindering Turkish membership of the EU. “We [Europeans] don’t have a history of cultural pluralism.” I was chatting with him at his office on Rue Michel-Ange in Paris on the gloomy afternoon of November 2, 2000. Even though Europeans were secular, he said, “we observed All Saints Day yesterday,” and “Christian values” underpinned “our moral standards and worldviews.” Having Muslim Turks in European neighborhoods wouldn’t “help social cohesion,” he added.
All the same, Turkey remains an asset to Europe and America, having the second-largest armed forces in NATO and serving as a bulwark against anti-Western guerrilla and terrorist forces in the Middle East. Turkey, too, is the EU’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-largest supplier of imports.
Today, under an agreement with the EU, Turkey hosts 3 million refugees from the Middle East and South Asia, who would otherwise be flooding Western Europe, creating a demographic and security nightmare there.
Hence Mogherini wouldn’t suspend, let alone end, Turkey’s “accession” talks, even though she knows the Turks wouldn’t be joining the family of European nations. I can foresee the eventual outcome of the negotiations: The Turks won’t become Europeans, but would maintain special economic and security relations with Europe.
The Erdogan government knows this. As a result, it’s already cultivating strategic and trade relations with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and a host of Middle Eastern countries.
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs analyst in Washington, has researched EU-Turkish relations and U.S. foreign policy options in the Middle West and South Asia. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’: https://muslimjourney.com.