Turkey and Europe: The Way Ahead

Turkey and Europe: The Way Ahead
Europe Report N°184: ICG: 17 August 2007

Cartoon source: Blog - Erkan's Field Diary


The pro-reform AK Party’s resounding victory in the July 2007 parliamentary elections gives both it and the European Union (EU) a chance to relaunch Turkey’s accession process, which has floundered since 2005 due to Europe’s enlargement fatigue and a neo-nationalist backlash in the country. That process, pursued with real application, has the capacity to help both sides. Popular opinion may show fatigue but leaders and diplomats need to keep avenues open for when political confidence returns, as past experience with the enlargement process suggests it can.

There is no need for Europeans to fear the membership goal. All in Turkey acknowledge the country is not yet ready. The earliest possible date for membership is a decade away, by which time it will be much changed. Turkey can only join if it has fulfilled the stiffest conditions applied to any candidate; any EU government can veto membership at the end of the road, and the French people can vote on it in a referendum. By then the Turks, too, may have second thoughts about the last step.

Pointing, as some European leaders now are, to Turkey’s current political, economic, social and demographic challenges to support arguments for its exclusion underestimates the transformative potential of the reform process. It is a short-sighted view that ignores earlier integration success stories in Western and Eastern Europe. The debate should be about joining a reformed Turkey to a reformed EU.

Europeans who attack the prospect of Turkish membership of the EU underestimate the damage they do to European interests. The mistrust generated already has caused Turkey to reduce its contribution to Europe’s common security policy. Ankara is showing signs of independent military policies over which Europe has diminishing leverage. Europe’s energy security is not being advanced. Mistakes by all sides over Cyprus are causing the dispute to poison what should be unrelated areas of the EU-Turkey relationship.

The way forward is, on the Turkish side, for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to use his new mandate to step forward with a bold further reform program, catching Europe’s imagination with some sweeping new gestures, like repeal or overhaul of the notorious Penal Code Article 301. On the European side, it is a matter of full, serious and continuing engagement in the accession process and not excluding the possibility of Turkey’s ultimate membership if there is full compliance with EU norms.

The present environment is not an easy one in this respect. Prejudices from the past, unrelated events in Iraq, bad timing in Cyprus and misreading of intentions have driven a wedge between the West and its long-time ally, the most successful secular democracy in the Islamic world. Politicians on both sides have irresponsibly attacked the EU-Turkey relationship as a populist proxy for domestic worries about immigration, welfare or national security.

In November 2005 the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came to power in Germany pledging to downgrade the goal of Turkey’s EU negotiations to “privileged partnership”. In December 2006, the EU froze the opening of eight of 35 negotiating chapters because it was unable to overcome an impasse with Turkey over Cyprus. In May 2007, France elected President Nicolas Sarkozy, who campaigned, inter alia, to end Turkey’s hope of membership. France then blocked the most important of three negotiating chapters that were to be opened in June.

The EU-led reform process has slowed in Turkey. Public support for membership has shifted from overwhelmingly positive to sceptical, and a new nationalism has arisen. Human rights abuses and prosecutions of writers have increased. The military has sought to reverse the course of the EU-bound political process. Anti-EU slogans merged with anti-American ones to become some of the loudest chants in massive secularist rallies in the months before the election.

The EU is not responsible for all Turkey’s tensions with the West. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the presence of Turkish Kurd rebel bases in U.S.-protected Iraqi Kurdistan are major reasons why public opinion has soured. But EU states need to be more sensitive to Turkey’s legitimate grievances about Kurdish attacks, especially bombings of civilians, and certainly if there is evidence they are being supported from Europe.

It needs to be better recalled on the European side that it was the start of negotiations with the motivating goal of EU membership that provided the stimulus for a golden age of Turkish reform in 1999-2004. The process brought stability, five years of 7.5 per cent economic growth, unprecedented foreign investment, legal and educational improvements, a blooming of civil society, critical Turkish contributions to EU peacekeeping projects, an alleviation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and a fleeting chance to solve the frozen Cyprus conflict. Despite the increasingly negative atmosphere since 2005, technical work on EU reforms continues in Ankara. In April 2007, the AK Party (AKP) drew up the country’s most intensively researched action plan for convergence towards EU standards.

EU-Turkey convergence has slowed before, and opportunities to speed it up will come again. If the results of the February 2008 elections in Greek Cyprus signal a new opening towards the UN’s bicommunal, bizonal plan for a solution, the EU should seize the chance to remove this roadblock. After all, mutual trust and an EU umbrella since 1999 have now smoothed problems that once seemed insoluble between Turkey and Greece.

Even European politicians sceptical of Turkey’s European vocation seek the reforms in Turkey that only the motivation of the membership process can bring. French-led objections once held up the candidacies of Spain and the UK for reasons some of which were similar to those heard today. Like Turkey, those countries had former non-European empires and ambivalence about a centralised EU. Turkey can contribute as much to the EU as other “unwanted” candidates have in the past – both during the accession process and, if the two sides agree, as a member.


To the European Union:

1. Keep engaged in Turkey’s convergence with the EU, doing nothing to undermine the promise that full compliance with EU norms will ultimately mean membership.

2. Focus on rational, legal aspects of the conditions for Turkey’s EU membership in order to attract support from reformers in Turkey and avoid making judgements on subjective cultural and religious ideas.

3. Rebuild and support the structure of the UN’s bicommunal, bizonal peace deal for Cyprus – the only idea tolerable to the populations of both sides – and work hard at explaining to Greek Cypriots the benefits of having Turkey within the EU framework.

To the Governments of EU Member States:

4. Form a group of friends of north Cyprus to reassure Turks there of their connection to Europe and consider new steps to intensify contacts in the framework of the EU-backed UN settlement process.

5. Emulate the model of successful outreach programs to Turkey by countries like Sweden and the UK and do more to explain the benefits of EU-Turkey convergence to their own populations, rebutting scaremongering.

6. For leaders of countries and opinion-makers in favour of Turkey’s accession, speak up in European forums, doing more to explain the mutual benefits that will flow from the accession process and ultimate membership.

To the Government of Turkey:

7. Resume with real commitment the reform process aimed at adapting Turkish laws to EU norms, in particular removing Article 301 of the penal code or redrafting it in a way that prevents its use in a manner incompatible with EU norms, and maintain technical work on the European acquis communautaire.

8. Use the new mandate from the Turkish electorate to build a strong, pro-reform political consensus that can marginalise secularist and nationalist scaremongers.

9. Take advantage of the presence of a broad cross-section of ethnic Kurdish politicians in parliament to launch a new Kurdish policy compatible with European norms.

10. Show more readiness to debate Turkey’s European vocation with all comers, including by inviting all kinds of EU opinion leaders to Turkey, not just those who are sympathetic, and create and sustain programs with European think-tanks.

11. Take on proactively more multilateral responsibilities that underline Turkey’s role as a strategic asset to the EU and serve Turkish national interests, like the engagement in Afghanistan.

12. Reduce as far as possible overflights, mock dogfights or other symbolic military threats to Greece or the Republic of Cyprus so as to help foster Greek support for Turkey’s EU candidacy.

13. Continue recent progress in bringing school textbooks in line with EU norms, especially in treating all religious traditions fairly, encouraging children to take a universal outlook and reconsidering their emphasis on a Turkey surrounded by enemies.

14. Expand the freedom of Kurdish-language broadcasting based in Turkey so as to give Kurds an alternative to pro-PKK satellite stations.

To the Government of Greece:

15. Educate Greek Cyprus about the advantages of supporting Turkey’s EU membership, including reduced defence expenditures, lower tensions and mutual economic advantage, and try to bring the Greek lobby in the U.S. into line with mainland Greek thinking on Turkey.

To the Government of Cyprus:

16. Set out realistic political goals that acknowledge a compromise with the Turkish Cypriots will require sacrifice by the Greek Cypriots as well.

17. Recognise that reunification of the island is only possible through the UN bicommunal, bizonal process and explain this to the Greek Cypriot population.

18. Welcome EU initiatives to bring Turkish Cypriots closer to the EU, so as to help close the gap between the people on the island and increase the room for political manoeuvre of pro-reform, pro-solution politicians in Turkish Cyprus and Turkey.

To the Government of the United States:

19. Continue to reward the Turkish community and administration on Cyprus economically and politically for pro-reunification actions, so as to help allay a feeling in Turkey that the West is irrevocably prejudiced against it.

20. Do more to convince Turkey that there is no American plan to support Kurdish separatist movements in the Middle East and continue to work behind the scenes in Europe to supply evidence about the activities of the PKK and persuade governments to end any toleration of financing and organisation by that rebel movement.

Istanbul/Brussels, 17 August 2007
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