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Will They or Won’t They?
The future of Turkey and Europe.


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Michael Rubin

On October 3, Turkish and European Union officials will sit down in Brussels to begin negotiating Turkey’s accession to the European Union. The day marks a new chapter in Ankara’s decades-long quest to join Europe. Turkey first applied for membership in the European Economic Community in September 1959. It achieved association status four years later. But the European Community rejected its application for full membership in December 1989. In 1993, the European Union member states agreed upon the Copenhagen criteria to define the prerequisites for membership. Few thought Ankara would pass the bar. But, to the surprise of many European politicians, their Turkish counterparts pushed through unprecedented economic and structural reform to meet the criteria. In August 2002, for example, the Turkish parliament agreed to abolish the death penalty and permit Kurdish-language broadcasts. In July 2003, the Turkish parliament pushed through an additional reform package diluting the political influence of the military. The August 2004 appointment of Mehmet Yigit Alpogan to head the National Security Council cemented a fundamental change in Turkish politics.

Empty Populism…

Still, some European politicians seek to prevent Turkish membership. Many make populist arguments. Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, for example, said that including Turkey in the European Union “would be the end of Europe.” For much the same reason, European Union foreign ministers entered yesterday into emergency caucus in Luxembourg to discuss last-minute Austrian objections to the consideration of full-membership for Turkey. As one Dutch politician hostile to Turkish membership said to me in May 2005, “The question of whether Turkey belongs in Europe was settled in 1683 [when the Hapsburgs repelled the Ottomans at Vienna].” Beneath the thin veneer of the European-identity argument is a deep-seeded but seldom acknowledged belief among the European elite that Muslims cannot be fully European.

Rather than confront the question of whether Turkey is European–and what European identity actually means–many European politicians have used side issues to undercut Turkey’s membership drive. On December 15, 2004, for example, the European parliament passed three amendments calling upon Turkey to acknowledge that the Ottoman Empire had committed genocide against the Armenian people. The debate over issues that predate Turkey’s establishment has become one of original sin. While historians do not dispute the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I, the historical record about the role of the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turks is far murkier than many European politicians acknowledge.

Some European politicians and both European and American nongovernmental organizations use human-rights concerns as a stick with which to beat Turkey. Most often, they argue that Turkey relegates its ethnic minorities to second-class status.

Actually, it is often the other way around. Kurdish citizens of Turkey who accept the constitutional and the legal basis of the Turkish state face little if any discrimination. Kurds have risen to the highest levels of state. Ismet Inölü, Atatürk’s successor and president from 1938 to 1950, was Kurdish. Likewise, Turgat Özal, president from 1989 to 1993, was part Kurdish. Hikmet Cetin, foreign minister between 1991 and 1994, was a Kurd. The same opportunities do not exist elsewhere in the European Union. As Washington Institute analyst Soner Cagaptay has pointed out, in European Union member Latvia, those who do not pass Latvian language tests cannot vote and do not receive passports.

European sentiment toward Ankara’s treatment of its Kurdish minority has been colored by many Europeans’ stance toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). European leftists too often assume that any group to be legitimate if it claims to be a liberation movement. The PKK does not represent Turkey’s Kurds, though. Kurds were disproportionately victims of a PKK terrorist campaign responsible for 30,000 deaths. It is hard for anyone in Turkey, Kurdish or not, to sympathize with a group famous for lining up Kurdish elementary-school teachers and executing them because they worked for the state.

The final populist issue with which some European politicians seek to derail Turkish membership regards Cyprus. In 1974, Greek-army officers staged a coup, ousting President Makarios in an attempt to unify Greece and Cyprus. The Turkish army intervened, effectively dividing island nation in order to protect its sizeable Turkish minority. Decades of negotiations and peace talks followed. These culminated in a plan brokered by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to reunite the island in a loose federation with minority rights enshrined. In an April 2004 referendum, Turkish Cypriots accepted the plan by a margin of two-to-one; Greek Cypriots rejected it overwhelmingly. The European Union’s subsequent decision to recognize the Greek Cypriot leadership as representative of the island nation and to give the Greek Cypriot side veto power over Turkish accession rewarded the intransigence of Greek populists and set back the cause of peace. To demand that Ankara offer further concession or abandon the Turkish minority would undercut both peace and justice.

…Obstructs Key Issues

Armenians, Kurdish nationalists, and Greek Cypriots may feel strongly about Turkey. But to shift the goal posts established in Copenhagen would undercut the European claim to stand for the supremacy of rule. The irony of the European populist stance is that for the sake of crude, anti-Turkish bias, they ignore serious problems which, if left unaddressed, might undercut not only the health and stability of Turkey’s democracy, but also that of any future European Union of which Turkey might be part.

The Justice and Development party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) rose to power in November 2002 on a wave of popular dissatisfaction with economic malaise and corruption scandals within the establishment parties. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed credit for leading the most recent drive toward Turkish membership in the European Union, he has undercut the rule of law, separation of powers, and transparency upon which Turkish democracy was built.

In 2000 and 2001, prior to the AKP’s accession, a currency and banking crisis nearly caused the Turkish economy’s collapse. The Turkish Government’s Banking Supervisory and Regulatory Board seized 22 private banks. Many made poor investments with inadequate capital. Demirbank, for example, bought 90 percent of one issue of government bonds, and went insolvent as the currency collapsed.

Others like Kent Bank and Pamukbank weathered the storm with minor hiccups. Nevertheless, in order to prove its seriousness to the International Monetary Fund, the Turkish government seized the banks. Mustafa Süzer, chairman of Kent Bank, contested the seizure in Turkey’s supreme court. He won three successive cases, in December 2003, April 2004, and February 2005. The court ordered the government to return Süzer’s assets. But Erdogan refused to honor the supreme court’s ruling. Not only was Süzer closely associated with rival politicians, but the two had clashed when Erdogan, as mayor of Istanbul, sought to revise the building permits of a controversial tower already under construction. Rather than obey the court, Erdogan’s political animus and vendetta carried the day. He transferred the seized assets to an Erdogan political ally and retaliated against Süzer with a travel ban. The case is not isolated. Turkish concerns which refused to make donations to the AKP now find themselves targets of criminal investigations or, as in the case of some local branches of U.S. companies, multimillion-dollar tax levies.

As serious as Erdogan’s abuse of power, has been his attempts to eviscerate the independence of the judiciary. In 2003, the AKP proposed lowering the mandatory retirement age of public servants from 65 to 61. In effect, this means that prior to the next election, Erdogan can replace 4,000 of the existing 9,000 judges and public prosecutors. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed the bill, but Erdogan, who as mayor of Istanbul compared democracy to a streetcar–”You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off“–directed his party to override the veto. The law (No. 4827) amounts to an AKP autogolpe that will impact the Turkish state for years to come.

The retirement controversy is part of a larger pattern of the AKP’s disdain for judicial checks and balances. In May 2005, frustrated at the constitutional court’s willingness to veto unconstitutional legislation, Parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc, an AKP member, suggested that the party could use its parliamentary majority to amend the constitution and abolish the court.

In a democratic system of checks and balances, an independent judiciary is one check on abuse of power. An independent media is another. Here too Erdogan’s administration has backpedaled. The Turkish prime minister has sued a number of political cartoonists. In one case, he filed a lawsuit against a prominent cartoonist who depicted Erdogan as a cat entangled in a ball of yarn.

After I raised questions about the influx of Saudi and other “Green Money” into Turkey, the prime minister’s chief adviser told a Turkish newspaper that rather than answer any questions raised, he would sue me. His statement was bluster. Too many Turkish journalists picked up the story and demanded answers. While he could not and did not act–Turkish reporters said that his threats were part of an increasing trend of debate suppression, government opacity, and intimidation. Turkish media outlets are particularly vulnerable to government pressure. Many are owned by larger conglomerates. Journalists say they must self-censor government criticism for fear that Erdogan may retaliate against other television station and newspaper owners’ non-media companies.

Should Turkey Join the European Union?

Turkey has come a long way. Generations of Turkish politicians spanning parties and philosophies have worked to tie Turkey to Europe. While Germany and France seek exemptions from their own financial policy commitments, Turkish politicians have pushed through much more substantial structural reforms. The tendency of European politicians to find any excuse to condemn Turkish policy, even while turning a blind eye toward similar more egregious actions by European Union members, reflects poorly on the principles for which Europe claims to stand.

Turkey should join the European Union. It is unfortunate, therefore, to see the AKP increasingly take actions which undercut the anti-corruption values upon which it campaigned. Abuse of power is never acceptable. The rule of law must remain supreme. While Europe should not treat Turkey unfairly, neither should the AKP. It would be a historical tragedy if one party’s fumbles undercut the Turkish dream. It is time for Turkey to move forward.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.



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