Taking it out on Turkey

The tortured discussion about the Turks joining the EU is a product of crises in the West more than the East.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Turkey appears to be causing drama in the European Union (EU). First there was talk of crisis, when EU nations couldn’t agree on the issue of Turkish membership. Austria led the opposition, backed up by blocs within countries such as France and Germany. Now that accession talks are agreed, rhetoric abounds about this being a ‘truly historic day for Europe’.

This isn’t about Turkey, though. Instead, it’s about EU elites jostling for position. Elites shaken over the recent ‘no’ votes on the EU Constitution are now trying to take a stand on Turkish accession. Some hope that Turkish membership will pave the way to a confident, multicultural Europe; others think that keeping Turkey out will keep Europe secure. But Turkey is neither the cause of nor solution to the EU’s problems – and the membership debate can only expose the EU elites’ isolation and vacuity.

The UK, which currently holds the EU presidency, is the staunchest supporter of Turkish entry. By letting in a Muslim nation, the Brits argue, the EU will prove its cosmopolitan credentials. Part of this is about invigorating Europe internally; sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens recently argued that accession is part of a project for a vibrant, post-national Europe, based on diversity (1). European politicians also hope to win the favour of Muslim communities both abroad and at home, an argument that gets US backing. The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently claimed that membership ‘would help to build a bridge between Christian and Muslim countries’, while rejection would reveal the EU as a ‘Christian club’ (2).

Austria and co, meanwhile, counter Turkey in an attempt to win favour with their own populations. One opponent warned of the danger of letting in ‘a poor, culturally alien nation’. Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who spearheaded the effort to rewrite the Constitution, has taken this tack in an attempt to save his reputation, arguing that ‘there is an obvious contradiction between the pursuit of Europe’s political integration and Turkish entry into European institutions’ (3).

Both sides are on a hiding to nothing. It will take more than a bit of ‘diverse’ Eastern spice to enliven stodgy EU politics. Similarly, it is delusional to think that radical Islamists will call off their battles just because Erdogan has a seat in Brussels, any more than they will be won over by Bush and Blair reading the Koran. Meanwhile, posturing against Turkey isn’t going to solve the problems of Giscard and others – that is a see-through attempt to cover up their own failures.

This debate reveals the isolation of EU leaders from their publics. On the one hand, both Turkish and European people are told to just accept that accession is inevitable. Erdogan counsels that ‘in today’s Turkey, there is no possibility left other than change. Turkey will no longer yield to political deadlocks to those who are ideological exploiters of emotion’ (4). Similarly, US deputy assistant secretary of state, Matthew J Bryza, argued that ‘our friends in the EU completely understand how important it is to continue that process of Turkey’s anchoring in Europe. It would be a shame if that process didn’t complete itself. But I think it will’ (5).

‘The process’ is really a business for Brussels lawyers. Turkey has been busily passing the kinds of laws that will help it jump through EU hoops – giving Kurds more autonomy, abolishing capital punishment, and cleaning up archaic legislation such as the rape law. These changes aren’t bad things in themselves; the problem is the automatic way in which they were brought through. ‘We returned the abnormal heartbeat of this country to normal’, said the prime minister.

Supporters present accession as a continuation of Turkey’s past, especially the dramatic Westernising reforms brought through by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. But while Ataturk’s (often heavyhanded) reforms were driven by revolutionary zeal, today’s Turkish elite is copying out the EU lawbook. Modernisation now is about bowing down in acceptance, not seizing the reins of national destiny. Hence the EU’s insistence that Turkey recognise the Armenian genocide. The Turks are asked to prove their membership of the Western club by flagellating themselves – joining UK prime minister Tony Blair in apologising for the potato famine, and former US president Bill Clinton in apologising for slavery.

EU publics are viewed with similar contempt. Opposition to Brussels’ plans is seen as the result of a chauvinistic yearning for security. Beck and Giddens say that suspicion of the EU is driven by ‘social and economic anxieties’ and an ‘emotional return to the apparent safe haven of the nation’; they warn that there is no option but to adapt to globalisation and adopt their cosmopolitan attitudes.

Given this, it’s no surprise that both EU and Turkish publics have started going cool on the idea of Turkish membership. Turkish support has gone down from three quarters to two thirds over the past year, and 60,000 people gathered in Ankara on Sunday to voice their opposition to the process. Speaking to the rally, party leader Devlet Bahceli argued that Turkey was facing ‘an environment of enmity from outside and an environment of treason from within’ (6).

The crowd-playing opponents of accession are no better, though. This is a desperate attempt to connect with a distant public, appealing to what elites see as the masses’ knee-jerk racism. Their attempt at populism could win them attention, but is unlikely to provide a secure support.

The debate about Turkish membership may be leading to a fracas in the EU, but Turkey itself isn’t the cause of the problem. The discussion may look east, but its roots lie in the west.

Read on:

For Europe, but not the EU, by Mick Hume

From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived, by Frank Furedi

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