Relaunching Turkey's EU dream
Relaunching Turkey's EU dream
Eastern Mediterranean Gas: Accelerating Peace? (Online event, 5 June 2023)
Eastern Mediterranean Gas: Accelerating Peace? (Online event, 5 June 2023)
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Relaunching Turkey's EU dream

When a half-century of convergence between Turkey and the European Union last floundered a decade ago, the Turks regrouped and forged forward, and the EU met them halfway. The result was a revolutionary period of reform. Last month, grateful for Turkey's most fruitful period of political stability for decades, the electorate gave a resounding 46.7 per cent vote of confidence in the ruling, pro-reform AK Party.

Now it is Europe's turn to take a stand. Instead it is stumbling, finding enlargement unfashionable, fearing immigration and mistaking some un-integrated Turks within the EU for Turkey itself. First politicians and now governments in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands are trying to short change Turkey with the new idea of a "privileged partnership", not the membership promised repeatedly since 1963.

There is no need for Europeans to fear Turkey's membership goal. All in Turkey acknowledge the country is far from ready. The earliest date for membership is a decade away. Turkey has to fulfil the stiffest conditions applied to any candidate. Any EU government can veto its membership, and the French people can vote it down in a referendum. If and when Turkey reaches acceptability to the EU, the Turks, attached to their sovereignty, make no secret that they too may think hard about the last step.

Nor is there cause to fear the Turks' mostly pragmatic take on Islam. The AKP's affable foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, almost certain to be elected president by parliament this month, has headlined his vow to preserve the secularism of Turkey's political system. Gül's wife wears the urban-chic headscarf of Turkey's new Muslim conservatives, but, in time, this symbol is likely to become as unremarkable as that of Erdogan's wife, equally controversial when he became prime minister four years ago. The secularist mass demonstrations of April and May show that Turkey's still-powerful Kemalist establishment and vigilant society will be the first to block any real attempt to install a theocratic regime.

Europeans should distinguish between now and the future, and remember that the EU goal provided the stimulus and motivation for the golden age of Turkish reform in 1999-2005. Ironically, this brought progress in many domains that right-wing critics in Europe use to illustrate why Turkey cannot become a member: poverty, bad governance and the lack of religious and other freedoms.

The advances visibly benefited European interests. The economy experienced five years of 7.5 per cent economic growth, a doubling of per capita income and an unprecedented boom in foreign investment. European companies, especially from Germany, have led the way in opening superstores and taking over banks, food companies and insurance concerns. Since the 1995 customs union with Europe, Turkey's overall trade volume has quadrupled, half of which is trade with the EU.

Internationally, Turkey typically adopts most of Europe's common foreign and security policy. Turkey has become a major contributor to peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, Congo, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. Straddling routes that the EU says may one day transport 15 per cent of Europe's oil and gas, it can enhance European energy security.

An historic avalanche of EU reform laws have helped to transform and democratise Turkish society. European legal oversight calmed the long-running ethnic Kurdish insurgency. In 2004, EU-Turkish rapprochement even brought a fleeting possibility of solving the frozen conflict on Cyprus. That chance may return. The EU's protective umbrella, after all, helped put in the past the once apparently insoluble bitterness between Turkey and Greece.

Loss of nerve

Since 2005, however, the EU's loss of nerve has put the process under pressure. The US-led war in Iraq has done even more to rouse anti-Western feelings in Turkey. These triggered jarring actions by nationalist Turkish prosecutors and authoritarian generals, which in turn provoked new European criticism.

Turkish politicians are now avoiding pro-EU stances. The military has slowed purchases from Europe. French companies, in particular, have suffered losses. Religious and ethnic minorities have come under renewed pressure. Rows over Cyprus are increasingly damaging EU and Nato diplomacy. Ankara is showing signs of a go-it-alone attitude in military matters, particularly towards northern Iraq, where Turkish Kurd rebels have bases.

It is not too late to reverse this trend. Technical work on the EU acquiesce continues in the Turkish capital. In April, the AK Party drew up the country's most intensively researched action plan for convergence towards EU norms. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not jumped on to the neo-nationalist bandwagon that developed in reaction to the EU disappointments. In his first speech after victory, he vowed to use his strong new mandate to relaunch the EU reforms.

To help that happen, Europe has to reach out, seriously and sincerely, with the goal of membership firmly in place. The EU-Turkey accession process is not, as one French politician has portrayed it, a breakable flirtation or engagement. Like two towns that have grown into each other, Turkey and Europe, once distinct, now overlap to an extent that cannot be undone.

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