So, here it is. The third term with the AKP, the political party that has been making the reforms for the accession negotiations with the EU, the party which the hard-core secular Turks are scared of, the party that made Turkey much more confident in its foreign policy by expanding its range. This more independent approach, according to some, is leading Turkey out of her EU membership goal, even though the leaders of AK Party claim that it doesn’t. They state that EU membership still forms the major goal of their foreign policy, that they will continue making the necessary reforms despite the Cyprus problem and the negative signals coming from leaders like Sarkozy and Merkel. They say, they are not going to be the ones who will leave the table, however, EU should not forget that Turkey is not the country of economic and political instabilities of the past and that the EU needs Turkey as much as Turkey needs the EU.
The signals coming from the EU haven’t changed since the beginning of this journey. ‘We don’t want to lose you, but we are scared to let you in. This is why we are going to continue to give you some incentives to make you feel like you are moving towards the membership while at the same time ‘some’ of the leaders of our member states will oppose your membership harshly based on your identity to give you the feeling that you are not wanted here.’ We all know this story, right? What the EU doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that the negative signals coming from the EU side with greater emphasis on ‘Turkey not being European’ will be of no use to the EU in terms of its higher goal of becoming a global player in world politics. This is even more relevant in the case of recent uprisings in the Arab world. The identity based opposition against Turkey, a secular state ruled by AK Party, which is a party inspirational to many in the Muslim world, will decrease the potential influence of the already-ineffective-EU as an international actor especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
The European Identity Turkey doesn’t have.
Being a Turk with a degree in European Studies is tough. Whenever I go out of Turkey, either for education or for leisure, people keep asking me the same question. ‘So what do you think of Turkey’s membership bid for the EU?’. I always argue based on what the EU is. More clearly, I think it’s hard to achieve if you take the EU as a cultural union, but not that difficult if you see it as a political and economic one. I say this because of two reasons. First is that the EU crumbles up when you dig into issues like identity and culture. There is no clear answer to what European identity or culture is. If you follow the European myths and the argument on religion to find a solid ground, you find yourself at the ‘Christian Club’, ending up with the exclusion of the ‘we believe in multicultural diversity’ option. If you claim that EU has a diversified culture, including different religions, cultures with all their uniqueness then you find yourself at ‘let’s not worry about the cultural identity and move on with what has been unifiying us: politics and economics’. My second reason is related to the first one, very simply, EU is not a cultural union, it is founded on political and economic goals and still operates based on them.
The case with Turkey is very much related to the cultural arguments. The groups opposing Turkey’s EU membership are mostly using the identity card, even the geography and population arguments are based on identity, which is very understandable since our cultures lead us to build our personal identities as well as the national ones. For example, President Sarkozy keeps opposing Turkish membership with the ‘Turkey is not European’ argument. Well, he would have a good point if only we knew which or what European identity he’s talking about. Turkey has a different culture than France, that’s true. Turkey has a different culture than many of the EU member states, true again, but aren’t each and every member states’ cultures different from each other? It is a union of 27 states which of many used to fight against each other frequently before there was the idea of creating a union! If the EU leaders want to make convincing arguments based on identity and culture against Turkey’s membership, I think they should first of all clarify some terms. What is that European identity that opposition team keeps talking about? Is it based on religion? Is it some myth that only seems to convince some of the scholars who know them? Is it democratic values, liberal economy, promotion of rule of law? (Oh wait, these were kind of universal!) Or is it ‘ We believe in multiculturalism’ as it is stated in the official EU documents? Is it a combination of all these? Unless they come up with a proper explanation, the non-EU part of the world will continue to believe that the so-called non-Europeanness of Turkey comes from the religious difference because Turkey has been moving on with a growing economy and reform-making. I am certainly not claiming that Turkey has accomplished the necessary reforms for accession, however, one should acknowledge that Turkey is much different than it was nine years ago when Turkey was a country of economic and political instabilities. In this sense, the identity-based exclusion seems to be a little bit dangerous especially under the light of the changing dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa since an exclusive EU may attract extremism to the region as a reaction.
EU as a Global Actor?
As we all know, massive changes are happening in the Arab world nowadays. The major global players are looking for ways to increase their influence and make the situation favorable to themselves. In this respect, we haven’t seen any constructive steps being taken by the EU as a bloc yet, except for the declarations ‘condemning violence’. The member states don’t seem to agree even on the consequences of the on-going crisis in Libya. EU member states like France and Italy are playing very actively, however EU as a foreign policy actor stays as it was, an impotent regional player. For example, France initiated the operation against Qaddafi to save the civilian lives, right? Then, why couldn’t the leaders of the EU members agree even on the action that are needed to handle the consequences of their operation, namely, the refugees? No positive or constructive response came to Berlusconi’s calls for help to handle the humanitarian crisis of refugees in Italy. (Oh wait, ‘something’ happened with the Schengen visa and France, anyone remembering that story?). The EU members act with their NATO identities, take decisions during their NATO meetings while EU publishes documents condemning violence in Libya, Syria… Is it only me who can’t see any worthy initiative on the EU side or is there really nothing to talk about?
Why Turkey’s AK Party?
Considering what’s said, it doesn’t seem possible that the EU will be able to become a major player unless they choose to cooperate with the AK Party government in Turkey, since they are considered to be a success story with their conservative stance, liberal economic policies and progressive approach in democracy. The claim that Turkey can increase EU’s influence in the Middle East and more generally the Muslim world is nothing new, the new development is the changing dynamics in that part of the world. Despite their ethnic, religious or cultural differences, the people in the countries where riots have been taking place want similar things: jobs, public services and democracy. They want what the AKP has been offering to Turkish people: bridges, dams, hospitals, schools, factories, jobs… They want more equality, not limited to what the political elites have been offering them for years. This is what the AKP has done so far, creating jobs and providing public services to the people, taking the control from the political elite and giving it to the people. With ‘people’ I refer to the masses who have been suppressed by the political elite for years, the ‘people’ who have been excluded from the political and social circles… One can even assert that AK Party has done a similar revolution in Turkey silently, by using the most visible tool of democracy: elections. This is why, maybe not Turkey, but what the AK Party has done in Turkey in nine years can be a model to these countries.
We don’t know if AKP success will continue but now is the time to speed up the accession dialogue with Turkey who is also going through the consequences of the instabilities in her neighbors, namely, Syria. I am not a fan of Turkey’s membership in the EU, however I think the possibility of it makes EU an interesting organization and Turkey a unique case. If the EU decides to update itself, this should take form in speeding up the accession process by removing the political obstacles (you all know what I am talking about: Cyprus) in front of opening up new chapters in the negotiations. Turkey doesn’t have much to lose in case of keeping the relations as inefficient as it is right now, because apparently Turkey seems to be moving on regardless of the slow accession process. Can we say the same for EU though? The EU that struggles to balance the economic crises in its members? The EU that is losing its influence on its neighbors, even on its biggest candidate?
Updating is good.
Considering the failure of the EU policies towards the countries where riots are taking place and the change in Turkey in the last nine years should trigger some action from the EU side to change the exclusive-identity based opposition towards Turkey. ‘Some’ leaders of the EU should realize that those arguments are outdated now, things change very rapidly, so does Turkey, whereas the arguments on the EU side stay the same since the very beginning. The leaders of the EU should accept that EU has not been able to cope with change in Turkey and the changing dynamics in its region. The architect of this process in Turkey, AK Party, has been re-elected with about 50% of the votes. This political party has been a unique case, either people like them or not. They boosted the Turkish economy, they made the Turkish foreign policy much more confident and diverse and they have taken ‘some’ major steps towards consolidating democracy (I’d like to keep my right to wait and see to this but still some revolutionary steps have been taken). The party and its success inspire many Arabs, especially the young ones. This is why Turkey, with the AKP, can actually help the EU to increase its influence in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. Excluding the symbol of Muslim democracy from the EU would just lead to decrease the already minimal influence of the EU as an international actor in its neighboring regions.