Turkey’s clash of values: memo to Europe

Cem Özdemir
29 April 2008

Cem Özdemir is a member of the European parliament (MEP) and spokesperson for foreign affairs of the Greens/EFA parliamentary group. His website is here

Also by Cem Özdemir in openDemocracy:

"Mehmet and Edeltraud too: prospects for a multicultural Germany" (30 May 2003)

"Istanbul: my mother's city" (12 February 2004)

For almost a year now, Turkey has been undergoing a profound domestic crisis. The crisis reached its preliminary climax in the proposal to ban the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP). At first glance this case deals only with the question of whether the party is threatening the secular character of Turkey, as anchored by the country's constitution. But a closer look reveals something more: that Turkey's parliamentary democracy itself is being tested, and that the very choice between a democratic state founded on the rule of law and an authoritarian system is being posed.

The substantive conflicts surrounding the proposed ban against the AKP, the identity of the secular republic - as well as the headscarf issue - are core elements of a political clash of values in which the country's European orientation has come under challenge. Turkey's already implemented and (from a European perspective) self-evidently justified reforms are unwelcome to a section of the country's elites, which has a vision of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous Turkey; to the raison d'état of this group, it seems incongruous that Brussels could wield the same influence in Ankara as it does in all other European Union member-states.

The Republic of Turkey's secular character

The European Union's accession negotiations with Turkey were launched after the European commission ruled that Turkey "sufficiently" fulfils the so-called Copenhagen criteria. The accession process entails the candidate country aligning itself with these criteria and implementing them gradually in a series of reforms. The political and economic developments in the candidate country are regularly inspected by European Union bodies, including the commission and the European parliament.

Also in openDemocracy's debate on the future of Turkey:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey divided: politics, faith and democracy"(4 May 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink: memory and hope" (17 January 2008)

Hasan Turunc, "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: the politics of military action" (25 February 2008)

Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's ‘Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)Turkey's reform process under the AKP government elected in 2002 (and re-elected with a big majority in 2007) - in civil law, criminal law or administrative regulations - is open to criticism, but there is no tangible evidence that it is being guided by religiously motivated politics. For several years now the EU has conducted both negotiations and a close political dialogue with senior AKP politicians such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey's prime minister) and Abdullah Gül (the country's president since August 2007). Europe sees them as committed democrats, as much as any prominent political figures within the EU. The leading members of the AKP aspire to guide their country into the European Union, where the rule of law, democracy, human rights and minority rights are non-negotiable, and where separation of state and religion obtains.

It is certainly true that the AKP is indeed (according to its self-understanding) a Turkish Islamic-conservative rather than a liberal party, and that much of its electorate shares this outlook. In some of Turkey's AKP-ruled municipalities, this is exemplified in a ban on the sale of alcohol and the removal of advertisements showing naked flesh; or in perceptions of gender roles, the value placed on family life, and opinions concerning the rights of homosexuals.

Such policies can provoke tensions, for many people living in their conservative neighbourhoods do not wish the ads they can see or their drinking habits to be decided for them - and would wish to decide for themselves if and how to fast, if they want to go the mosque or cover their heads with a headscarf.

In light of such realities, the EU - together with Turkish civil society - will continue to observe attentively whether individual rights in Turkey are constrained by religious, nationalist or other factors. Although the views of the AKP and myself (as a Green politician) may differ markedly, I do not see any signs, that the AKP has a "hidden agenda" to abolish the rule of law and the secular character of Turkey. However, many people in Turkey - even as they oppose a military coup and aspire towards democracy and the rule of law - do believe this. As a consequence, the AKP should ask itself why so many city-dwellers, women and members of minorities share these fears.

Since the beginning of the accession negotiations, some European proponents of Turkey's EU membership have criticised Ankara on a variety of understandable grounds. These include the AKP's failure to realise its promise to abolish Article 301 of the criminal law, which constrains freedom of expression; to enforce the rights of ethnic and religious minorities (equivalent to those of Turks and Muslims in Bulgaria or Germany, for example); or to pass a new, civil constitution which (among other measures) would restrict the ability to ban political parties. The possibility that the AKP could become the victim of its own flaws in these respects - by giving succour to those inside Turkey who criticise the AKP and seek to proscribe it, albeit from another (nationalist and isolationist) direction - would be a bitter irony of history.

The role of the European Union

At present, Europeans engaged with Turkey see no reason to discuss a possible suspension of the accession process. But this does not mean that this option can be excluded categorically. In principle, the European Union would not continue to hold accession talks with a country whose government violates the basic rules of a parliamentary democracy, overrides the rule of law, or tries covertly to abolish the secular system. At present, however, my colleagues and I do not see such dangers in Turkey.

Under these conditions, a hasty decision by Brussels to slam the door on Turkey would be fatal, for it would delight protagonists of the AKP ban by killing two birds (an anti-AKP one, and an anti-EU one) with a single stone. Rather, the European Union and the member states must define a clear and positive position: that they still believe in the ongoing accession process; that they will support Turkey critically during its reform path; and that the Copenhagen criteria remain the benchmark during this process.

Turkey's accession process towards European Union membership is a unique opportunity, which neither side should thoughtlessly jeopardise. The shared goal is a democratic Turkey within Europe with a healthy civil society at its heart. All who seek to realise this vital outcome must constantly keep it in sight.

This article was translated from German by Rana Aydin

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