Time to ‘talk turkey’ about Turkey – and the EU

The controversies over Turkey and the West will not be resolved by people hiding their arguments behind the Pope, the Greek Cypriots or the EU.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Many political Turks, I was assured in Istanbul last weekend, enjoy nothing better than an opaque and multi-layered debate filled with symbols, ciphers, and alleged conspiracies. If that is true, then they will have been having a high old time this week, in the rows over the Pope’s visit and Turkey’s accession to the European Union. For in those international controversies, little is really as it might appear to be, and almost everybody seems guilty of hiding their true arguments and agendas behind a false front.

Take the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, to Muslim Turkey this week. The trip, following in the footsteps of previous pontiffs, became the focus of huge controversy after the Pope’s speech at a German university earlier this year, where he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine Christian emperor who said the Prophet Muhammad had brought only ‘evil and inhuman’ things. Critics subsequently pointed out that, back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope had opposed Turkey’s admission to the EU, arguing that Christian Europe was a cultural, not merely economic, entity, in which Muslim Turkey has no place.

So it was threatened that the papal visit to Turkey would be a symbol of the clash of civilisations, more so after the Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and leading ministers from his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) all said they were too busy to greet the Pope. Yet come this week, it turned out to be something of a phoney war. There have been some protests by Islamic radicals. But Erdogan somehow found time to meet Benedict at Ankara after all. During their meeting, the first thing the Pope seems to have done was to declare his support for Turkey’s EU accession process. This should have come as no surprise to those who noted that the Pope had effectively withdrawn his remarks about Islam and violence, and apologised for the offence, within a couple of days of the German speech.

If the papal visit is symbolic of something in international politics today, it is less a symbol of a clash of civilisations than of a climate in which posturing, shallow convictions and PR gestures take the place of serious debate about big issues.

The debate about the EU’s relationship with Turkey, which will have far more long-term significance than a papal tour, is marked by an even greater gap between appearance and reality. This week it has been said that the talks over Turkey’s entry to the EU are at ‘breaking point’ over the thorny issue of a settlement for Cyprus, the island divided between the Greek Cypriot Republic (now itself a member of the EU) in the South and the internationally unrecognised Turkish Cypriot statelet in the North, where thousands of Turkish troops remain.

This dispute is now presented by some as a stand-off between the Islamic and nationalist hardliners of Turkey, and the defenders of the little Greek Cypriot republic in democratic Europe. In reality, however, all sides are playing a rather more complex game.

Even if the drawn-out diplomatic process is completed, Turkey has no prospect of joining the EU for a good few years. So why has this dispute been blown up into such an urgent issue today? It seems clear that many of those opposed to an Islamic country joining the EU are now hiding behind the Greek Cypriots’ cause. Some who have shown little interest in finding a solution for Cyprus over the past 30 years have suddenly discovered that championing the Greek Cypriots’ veto against Turkey is a matter of principle. For their part, supporters of the Turkish Cypriots complain that 700,000 Greek Cypriots are being allowed to hold the entire EU and Turkish nation to ransom. But the Greek Cypriot statelet looks more like a Trojan horse for more powerful anti-Turkish forces in the EU.

This is typical of the broader atmosphere of dishonesty in the EU-Turkey debate. The overheated focus on the problems of Turkish accession has become a welcome distraction from the crisis within the EU. It allows the EU bureaucracy to present an image of a happy Euro-family trying to cope with the external problem of Turkey. This image conveniently ignores the real crisis that has afflicted the upper echelons of the EU since the voters of France and Denmark threw out their new Euro-constitution and threw all of their plans into disarray (see The reawakening of European democracy, by Frank Furedi).

The democratic revolt captured in those referendum votes shook the Euro-elite, which has since sought to deny that reality and find something else to talk about. Posturing about the problems of making Turkey an EU member shifts attention from the inconvenient detail that millions at the heart of Europe have shown they are unsure whether the EU as presently constituted is fit for their countries to belong to.

It is classic displacement activity. Leaders like Germany’s chancellor Merkel and France’s president Chirac, uncertain of a troubled Europe’s future, instead make bold statements about the trouble with Turkish membership. The ploy is most obvious within the French elite, who are now talking about holding another referendum, but on Turkey’s accession; a case of ‘if we cannot get our people to vote for our plans for the EU, maybe we can at least persuade them to vote for us against the Turks’. This sort of posturing can only be counterproductive on all fronts. As one Turkish commentator put it to me at the weekend, if they keep pushing Turkey away the Turkish ‘bogeyman’ may decide to go away, and how will that solve the EU’s problems?

However, despite the disputes there seems little immediate prospect of that. The Turkish authorities, too, are being disingenuous in their stand-off with the EU. They have to show willing to stand up for the Turkish Cypriots. But despite appearances and images, the Islamic government in Ankara needs the EU.

After coming to power in 2002, the AKP government used the prospect of EU negotiations as a shield behind which to push forward its own reform agenda for Turkish society. The government introduced reforms on everything from advancing human rights law to restricting the political power of the constitutional courts and the military, and justified these politico-legal measures as necessary if Turks were to reap the economic benefits of EU membership.

This may come as something of a surprise to those of us who have seen the AKP through the images cast of it in the West, where many look with fear at the very idea of an Islamist government in a state that has been self-consciously secular since the Turkish republic was established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ‘father of the Turks’, whose own image is still seen everywhere.

Yet here, too, things are a little different than the political stunts and slogans might suggest. I was in Istanbul last weekend for discussions on various aspects of EU-Turkish relations, organised by the British Council and the Open Society Institute, with Turkish and European academics and writers. No doubt these experts have their own prejudices and preconceptions. But from some of the research they presented, a strikingly different picture of Turkish politics in general and the AKP in particular emerged.

The bloc of voters which gave the AKP their election victory turns out to have been based, not in the traditional Islamic base of the urban poor, but among the new entrepreneurial middle class in places like the Turkish heartland of Anatolia, seeking to break away from the old centralised Kemalist system in which, as one observer put it, ‘the state is the shepherd and the people the sheep’. The AKP is a morally conservative, but in other ways liberal, pro-market party of modernisation, and its leaders have less of an eye on the strict teachings of the Koran than on the privatisation polices preached by the IMF.

Many of those who have long been outsiders in Turkish politics have supported the AKP’s advances to the EU as the means to restructuring the relationship between the state and society. Where ‘Westernisation’ might once have been seen as a cause of their exclusion on the margins of Turkish society, now, through the EU, these people see it as their entry ticket. And others who could not support the Islamic government on ‘cultural’ grounds, such as the women’s movement or the Kurdish left, are pinning their hopes on the government’s overtures to the EU to fulfil their own dreams of far-reaching reform, since they see winning the argument in the committee rooms of Brussels easier than winning them on the Turkish streets.

As one NGO spokesman put it: ‘The simplicities of the “threat from Islam” need to be questioned.’ Turkish politics is more sophisticated than these caricatures allow. There are deep divisions, but these do not simply run along straight secular v religious lines. The debate about the headscarf, for example, worn by around half of all Turkish women, has come to be seen as another symbol of the struggle between the new and the old – but in fact many of the ‘new’ energetic forces in Turkish politics around the AKP are on the side of women who ‘cover’, while the new urban middle classes are more likely to side with the old statist and military elite in upholding the ban on headscarves in public offices (which means that AKP ministers whose wives cover have not been invited to presidential ceremonies). Meanwhile, the supposedly hardline Islamist prime minister refused to get involved in a row over whether university students should be allowed to wear the headscarf.

Nor do the attitudes of Tukish voters on other social issues easily fit into the stereotype of Muslim societies. According to a major survey conducted earlier this year, for example, only nine per cent would support the introduction of an Islamic sharia state – down from 20 per cent in 1999. Even those 1999 figures were far lower, especially among women, when people were asked about specific sharia laws such as men having up to four wives; less than one per cent favoured stoning adulterers.

The debate about Turkey and the EU raises some complicated questions. But many in the EU do not much care about the subtleties, since the Turkish accession has been turned into a symbol in the struggle to resolve – or at least distract from – the EU’s own problems. Thus EU commissioners have delighted in posing on the moral high ground for once, lecturing Turkey about its human rights record, restrictions on free speech, attitudes to women and Kurds and much else. They have set unprecedented deadlines for Turkish complicance with their instructions, and made it clear that, unlike any other candidate for EU membership, Turkey may not be allowed to join the club even if it meets all the stringent conditions.

Inevitably, this ‘they’re not like us’ attitude has proved self-fulfilling, fuelling a backlash among sections of Turkish opinion. With opposition parties crying conspiracy, and comparing the EU conditions to the infamous Treaty of Sevres – the 1920 plan to divide Turkey among the victorious Great Powers after the First World War – public resentment has been rising and support for EU membership falling, down to one-in-three according to some polls, around half what it was not long ago. Polls also show increased sympathy among Turks for the Islamic world, not least because of the war in Iraq, Turkey’s nextdoor neighbour.

Against this background, it was extraordinary to hear British officials at a dinner party in Istanbul at the weekend giving yet another lecture about all the things that Turkey ‘must’ do if it hopes ever to join their club. They talk about how the EU will ‘democratise Turkey’, seemingly unaware of the inherent contradiction in any notion of democracy anywhere being imposed by the diktat of foreign bureaucrats. And then in the next breath, supporters of Turkish accession complain about the ‘reactionary nationalist upsurge’ they claim has mysteriously appeared as if from nowhere.

All of this raises the question, should Turkey want to be in the EU? For us here at spiked, there has always been a difference between Europe, the continent of free and creative peoples, and the EU, the kingdom of bureaucrats and conservatism. In many ways the EU is a dead weight around Europeans’ collective neck. That is why we are more pro-Europe than anybody else – favouring, for example, free migration – but not pro-EU. And it is why, while we want the Turkish people to be fully integrated with Europeans, we doubt whether the EU is in any way the means to do it.

Of course we believe that there is a need for reform and free speech in Turkish society. But these are matters for the Turks to resolve through democratic debate, not for the EU to dictate in the false name of democratisation. On returning from Turkey, I saw the prime minister of Estonia interviewed on an American TV channel. He said that the process of joining the EU had been ‘like having every bone in your body replaced’. The Turkish body politic is expected to undergo even more serious surgery – while sleeping under general anaesthetic, of course.

It seems likely that several chapters in the Turkish-EU negotiations will be suspended in the current Cyprus stand-off, and there is even talk of a ‘time-out’ for the entire accession process. These things will drag on and on no doubt. But the debate about them is helping to shape the political climate now, not just in Turkey but elsewhere in Europe, too.

That is why it is time, as the Americans say, to ‘talk turkey’ – time for all sides to be frank and open about where they really stand. Stop hiding behind the Pope, or the Greek Cypriots, or the Turkish Cypriots, or the EU, or Ataturk, or history. Let us have an honest argument about the sort of Europe we want to live in. One of the conditions for that, of course, is that we have truly free speech – in countries like Britain and France (with its absurd tit-for-tat law making it a crime to deny the Turkish genocide against the Armenians) as well as in Turkey.

Near my hotel in Istanbul, a fine mosque stands in the shadow of a spectacular suspension bridge across the river Bosphorus, joining the European side of the city with the Asian. When President Bush was in Istanbul for a NATO conference, they brought him there to pose for a photo opportunity against that background – supposedly an image that captures the relationship between East and West, ancient and modern, change and tradition.

It is a great view. But there are arguably far too many symbols and postures and poses in the Turkish debate, and too few straight arguments and honest principles in plain sight. The future of Europe, and Turkey’s place in it, is surely too important for such games.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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