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Turkey and Europe: diplomatic masquerade?

Gareth Jenkins
19 December 2001

Turkey has always adopted an ambiguous attitude towards Europe. During the last years of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish elite looked towards the industrialised nation states of Europe as a model to emulate. When Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, he explicitly sought to create a European state, importing the Christian calendar, the Latin alphabet and legal codes from Switzerland and Italy. He even built opera houses similar to those he had seen on his travels through Europe in his youth. For Ataturk, as for most Turks, being Europe was not just a question of development or modernization, it meant joining an elite of nations.

In 1963 Turkey was granted associate membership of what was then the European Community. In 1987 it applied for full membership. Its application was rejected twice in 1989 and 1997 before being finally accepted at the EU summit in Helsinki in December 1999. But the desire to be allowed into the ‘European family of nations’ runs parallel to a deep-rooted suspicion of European motives, which has intensified rather than diminished as Turkey has edged closer to EU membership.

Turkish schoolchildren are taught that European states are still trying to revive the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which, though never ratified or implemented, sought to divide what was to become modern Turkey by ceding large tracts of territory to Greece, Armenia, Italy and France and creating an independent Kurdish state. Most Turks genuinely believe conspiracy theories in which the EU is still trying to weaken Turkey, both through partition (e.g. the creation of a Kurdish state) and through instigating sufficient domestic political turmoil to ensure that the country remains weak and thus easily exploited.

From embrace to rejection, and back

On their own, each of these twin elements of aspiration and distrust would pose problems for Turkish-EU relations, but combined, they are a lethal mixture. The tendency to see membership of Europe in terms of status means that there is very little discussion in Turkey of what it really means to be a member of the EU, much less of how much the EU has changed over the last decade and how it is likely to continue to change in the years ahead.

In theory at least, the EU is now a supra-state based on shared values rather than merely a tariff-free market. But for most Turks it is still seen as the same elite club which Ataturk wanted Turkey to join.

Significantly, virtually all of the legislative changes in Turkey over the last decade – to increase democratisation and ease what are still draconian restrictions on freedom of expression – have been implemented not for their own sake but as a means to an end; namely, membership of the EU. Nor are such attitudes restricted to Turkey’s governing elite.

In a society in which communal integrity, whether of the family, the local community or the nation, is still more highly valued than the individual rights and freedoms which underpin the Western notion of human rights, there is little grassroots pressure to protect dissenters or to allow potentially divisive political plurality. The result has been a series of changes on paper, while in practice the suppression of freedom of speech and human rights abuses – and the victims are almost invariably from the margins rather than the mainstream of Turkish society – have continued.

Inevitably, when membership of the EU is seen primarily in terms of status, rejection is seen as demeaning to the point of insult. When Turkey’s request to be named as an official candidate for accession was rejected at the EU summit in Luxembourg in December 1997, there were howls of injured pride in the Turkish media with the headline in one best-selling daily declaring: ‘Go to Hell, Europe!’ When Turkey was named as a candidate at Helsinki in 1999, the reaction was euphoric with several newspapers enthusiastically proclaiming ‘At last we are European!’.

On neither occasion was there any discussion of what ‘being European’ meant. For many Turks, what was important was that candidacy meant that they had been ‘recognised’ as Europeans by the EU. As such, it was the culmination of a process stretching back to the 19th century.

For the EU it was more of a beginning, the start of a process through which Turkey would have to earn membership, particularly through the fulfilment of the political conditions for accession contained in the Copenhagen criteria. But Turkey has always treated the Copenhagen criteria as ancillaries to the main issue, which is whether Turkey is or is not ‘European’.

From the Turkish perspective, the EU’s continued insistence that Ankara implement the freedoms envisaged under the Copenhagen criteria is not only baffling, but also suspicious. At best, such insistence is seen as camouflage for racial or religious prejudice. But many in both the Turkish political establishment and the country’s powerful military genuinely believe that the EU is driven by more sinister motives.

There is a genuine fear in Turkey (justified or not) that the lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression would encourage Islamist and Kurdish nationalist sentiments, unleashing forces which would tear Turkish society apart. Turkish nationalists are ever quick to claim that the territorial disintegration of their country, through the formation of a separate Kurdish state, is an aim for which Europeans have been assiduously conspiring ever since the failure of the Treaty of Sevres.

Such suspicions have intensified since the attacks in the US on 11 September. It has not gone unnoticed in Ankara that the EU has remained silent as Washington discusses the introduction of measures – such as government-sanctioned assassinations, capital punishment and the use of military tribunals for captured Islamist militants – when it vigorously condemned Turkey for similar measures during its 15 year war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Before Europe, the motherland

There is also a measure of justification for Turkish complaints that the EU has allowed itself to be used by Greece in pursuit of its own agenda against Turkey. Turkey’s threat to use its veto to prevent the rapid reaction force (forseen under the European Strategic Defence Policy, ESDP) from using NATO assets was motivated by the fear that the EU might use the force either on Cyprus or in disputes with Athens over territorial waters in the Aegean. Turkey’s announcement that it was lifting the threat of its NATO veto came only after it had been assured by the UK that the force would not be deployed in disputes between Turkey and Greece.

The announcement on 2 December that Ankara was withdrawing its objections to the formation of a European defence force, and the resumption two days later of negotiations over the future of Cyprus has eased tensions at a time when Turkish-EU relations appeared to be heading for a crisis. The result has been to create an atmosphere conducive to constructive dialogue for the first time in 18 months. But progress on this front has also served to illuminate the conceptual gulf that still separates Turkey and the EU.

Ironically, it was the Turkish general staff, whose domination of security policy has often been cited by the EU as incompatible with the membership criteria regarding civilian control of the military, which both pressured the Turkish government into lifting the threat of a NATO veto over ESDP and forced Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to return to the negotiating table. However, despite the resumption of talks, there appears little prospect of a solution before the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus is expected to be given the green light for membership in mid-2002.

Behind the diplomatic masquerade

The accession of the Republic of Cyprus would deal a fatal blow to Turkish hopes of imminent EU membership. There is a real danger that Ankara will react emotionally and withdraw its application for membership. Such a move would be accompanied by a surge in anti-EU fury inside Turkey, which would probably fuel a dramatic increase in bruised nationalist and pro-Islamist pride with potentially devastating consequences both domestically and in the region.

But the hope remains that calmer heads will prevail, that the application will not be withdrawn and that a formula can be found which would enable Turkey and the EU to coexist and cooperate without the cohabitation that comes with full membership. In the medium-term such an arrangement would give Turkey time to reconcile its desire for accession with its reluctance to embrace the values on which membership is supposedly based.

Although they would be loathe to admit it publicly, the withdrawal or suspension of Turkey’s application would also come as a relief to many in the EU. There is little doubt that Turkey’s continued failure to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria has played into the hands of those who, for historical, racist or religious reasons, would not want Turkey to join the EU under any circumstances.

At the same time, even those in the EU who sincerely support Ankara’s candidacy do so in the knowledge that Turkish accession will not occur in the foreseeable future. They are thus spared the need to consider not just the social and cultural consequences but also the economic impact of taking in a population of 70 million with a per capita income of 15 percent of the EU average.

There is an element of truth in the joke doing the rounds in the corridors in Brussels in which an EU bureaucrat whispers to his Turkish counterpart: ‘You pretend you want to join and we’ll pretend we want you.’

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