The prospect of Turkey’s membership in the European Union has always been a contentious matter. Turkey obviously needs to conform to the EU norms and standards to become its member, and the current outlook is not pretty. That is acknowledged. But the controversy has deeper roots. The respective underlying visions of Turkey and the EU on common identification remain apart. This issue runs beyond the negotiating framework.
For Turkey -so long as her successive governments remained dedicated to the founding tenets of the Republic- EU membership represented the natural continuity of the nation’s trajectory in and with Europe. Europe, beyond its physical existence, was an idea, almost a metaphor. This was different from the valuation the countries of the continent were individually conferred. It was true that Turkey lagged almost hopelessly behind the advanced nations of Europe which she aspired to catch up with, at the time of the proclamation of the Republic. Yet, although Turkey’s democratic transformation lay in the future by several decades, its keystone “sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the nation” was already set firmly.
From the outset, the Republic saw no civilizational impediment in her new relationship with the European powers. If scores had to be settled mutually, they were already settled through recent war and peace. Now was the time to operate and cooperate on the basis of shared norms which historically came into being in Western Europe. Modernity, the cumulative outcome of scientific, technological, social and economic breakthroughs, was perceived in the same way. It offered guidance not only to the West, but to the entire humanity. It should be noted that in the Republic’s lexicon, “contemporary civilization” is singular.
This expectation however proved to be an illusion. This was not because the underlying assessment was flawed, but because there were few, if any, takers of that view in Europe. The sense about the new context was simply not mutual. For many in the West, the Turkish revolution was nothing much more than an adjustment to changed realities after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey was seen essentially as the continuation of the same “Eastern” entity, albeit with a modern façade, which somewhat blurred its people’s “alien” religious and cultural character. The longstanding cultural caveat kept resonating.
The twentieth century has been a sobering experience for Europeans, to put it mildly. One particularly welcome consequence of this existential phase in their history has been the emergence of European democracies as defenders of the universality of human rights and freedoms. To what extent this declared position represents a clear break with their erstwhile exceptionalism -that is Christian Europe peculiarity- is an open question however.
What we actually observe in that is a shift of focus from “we own” to “can you own?” Many in the West are still convinced that the “Islamic context” poses an innate challenge to democratic governance and modernity. Orientalism, it seems, is alive and well. Apparently, they still confuse social and political circumstance with religion itself.
They obviously need to take a closer look at how all religions -not just Islam- were knitted closely together with political power and its legitimization in the past, and how this mold was broken by people who were no less devout believers than their ruling establishment, as they struggled for their rights. The claim that the Western Christian establishment remained independent or separate from political power and authority is an urban legend. Anyway, it is not the specific mode by which religion was associated with “Caesar”, but rather the evolution and the eventual triumph of the rule of law in the process of overwhelming social and economic change which put societies into their contemporary perspective.
Islamists build their case on exactly the same premise of peculiarity. They disown everything which is identified with the “West”, including democracy, sanctity of individual rights and freedoms, free speech and gender equality, which are actually the cherished products of the long, agonizing struggles by the people. They occasionally pay lip-service to these principles, only to grow austere again when they feel more powerful or, conversely, are in distress. Islamism and Orientalism (with its contemporary manifestations) are the flip sides of the same coin.
There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the two. The tighter the authoritarian stranglehold gets around a predominantly Muslim nation, the more plausible becomes the claim that democracy and Islam are not compatible. And, as perceptions on both sides are shaped on this premise, their entrenchment, hence separation, deepens, moving the “West versus Islam” prophecy one step closer to its fulfillment. A fair-minded person should then ask, “isn’t all this tension instigated, in the first place, by pitting religion against democracy?”
In Turkey, we witness a similar trend. There is obviously no “social DNA” deficiency for democracy in Turkey. But there is a combative coalition in power which keeps playing on differentiation, alienation, security preoccupations as well as institutional weaknesses. These are exactly the areas which monopolizing leaders and political movements elsewhere have always tapped into. Yet, people in Turkey know things better now.
It is time also for the European leaders and public to reflect. With the benefit of hindsight, it now appears that while Turkey’s resolve to join the EU was strategic, the EU’s decision in 2004 to launch the accession negotiations was tactical. Coming also in the immediate wake of the EU’s largest expansion which coalesced most of the former battlefields in the continent, the process with Turkey quickly acquired the character of a neighborhood policy via closer interaction, rather than actual negotiations.
The subsequent episodes amply corroborated this state of the relationship. The suspension and the blocking of a whole gamut of chapters early on over a single issue and similarly the removal of a range of others by France explicitly on the grounds that they “directly related to membership” all but reduced the entire exercise to shadow boxing. The subsequent “Positive Agenda”, a misnomer, became its epitome. The veto prerogative of EU members by virtue of the consensus rule hardly explains this never-ending stalemate. We know how major decisions are taken in Brussels.
EU’s reluctance to enable the negotiation of the chapters on “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights” (23) and “Justice, Freedom and Security” (24) elicits particular mention. Because these are the ones which pertain directly to the concerns it kept raising over Turkey’s declining performance in the areas of rule of law and fundamental rights. The EU thus practically chose to disengage itself from the entitlements it would have exercised had it entered the negotiating range.
Perhaps the Turkey-EU Customs Union of 1995 deserves partial blame in all this. With the trade regime fully in place long before the accession negotiations started, the EU had no material urgency to take Turkey into the fold. Today, with the membership prospect in tatters, that outdated Agreement represents an anomaly.
The rest is history. The EU obviously cannot be blamed for our own poor performance. But its dispassion meant rebuff in Turkey. This served well precisely those who vehemently spurn our commonalities. The whole point is, the EU could have acted as an involved and credible partner. Realistically speaking, under the circumstances, no one expects the revival of the accession process within any measurable time. The question rather is, will it ever come to life, even after we meet again as fellow democracies.
Meanwhile, piecemeal deals should be weighed carefully. The 2016 migrant deal between Turkey and the EU, for instance, actually registered the low point in our relationship. The loosely worded visa liberalization and upgrading of the customs union commitments as well as a stiff reference to the accession process aside, the 18 March statement principally assigned Turkey the role of buffer, safeguarding the EU from the flow of Syrian refugees. One can hardly find a more explicit way to consign a geopolitical role to Turkey so detached from the EU’s own. Fortunately, the geopolitics keep proving otherwise.
Three phases can be discerned in Europe’s journey to fuller union. The first phase was shaped by post-war sobering, the second by waves of enlargement and deepening. The third and current phase is about global relevance. Turkey’s accession process was formally an aspect of the enlargement, whereas it is central to the third. The United Kingdom’s recent exit from the EU is also not unrelated to the issue of global relevance. Maybe the EU is still overly focused on its continental vision which constricts its ability to find its requisite form in the twenty-first century world. Europeans will be well advised to keep these in mind.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 64 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.