Once again in the European Union, thanks to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the discussion about admitting new members is coming to the boil and, once again Turkey, promised membership of the Union over 30 years ago, is not on the list.
In fact, it is even worse than that. Turkey is still being actively blackballed. At a get-together of European Christian Democrats, not that long ago, a prominent member, Wilfried Martens, the former prime minister of Belgium, was quoted as saying, “The European Union is in the process of building a civilization in which Turkey has no place.” Successive French presidents have uttered similar thoughts. Of the major countries only Britain has continuously been sympathetic to Turkish entry. One can surmise, since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s grandfather was a Turkish journalist, that Britain still leans that way, even if it has lessened its enthusiasm as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrested many journalists, opposition leaders and Kurds in recent years. For decades the US supported Turkish entry. These days it avoids being drawn on the subject, although it is assumed it still supports accession.
The hand of European chauvinism is again being dealt to Turkey, home to Istanbul, the city that strides two continents, the only city to have served as the capital of three empires, the historic meeting place of east and west, cradle of Christian Byzantium as well as Ottoman Islam. It was Napoleon Bonaparte, the first practical pan-European, who said, “If the world were a single state, its capital would be Istanbul.”
What is it then that blocks Turkey from assuming its natural position as the easternmost flank of Europe, a role it has played quite happily as a member of NATO since 1960? It is its state of economic development, its human rights record, or its religion? It is a bit of all three, but none are totally convincing if looked at with even a modicum of good sense.
Turkey, admittedly, is still a developing country with an inflation rate of 80%, a heavy load of debt, a growing maldistribution of income, the problems bequeathed by over-rapid urbanization, and counterproductive economic and financial policies imposed by Erdogan in the face of his advisors’ private convictions. Nevertheless, according to the World Economic Forum, it has a larger economy than Poland, Belgium and Sweden, all EU members. In terms of competitiveness, according to the International Monetary Fund, it is ahead of EU members, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia. It is certainly as well placed economically as were Spain, Greece and Portugal when they negotiated entry.
The human rights story, in contrast, is as painfully true as outsiders paint it, although there have been many insiders, not least the late president Turgut Ozal, who have worked hard over the years to get their country’s house in order. Torture is still practiced in Turkey’s prisons, increasing in recent years. The war against the dissident Kurds continues with an obsessive ruthlessness. Promises to the Kurds on some degree of autonomy have been broken
Even before Erdogan became so powerful and dictatorial, hard-line elements in the army made it enormously difficult for civilian leaders to reach out to the accommodation being offered from prison by Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish armed insurgency. If America didn’t feel itself so obsessively in hock to the Turkish military in its quest to keep Russia on the defensive it could use the muscle of its large-scale military assistance and arms sales, some of which is used to fight the Kurds, to push Turkey to be more accommodating on human rights issues, including the plight of the Kurds.
The most worthwhile approach to the Kurds and other human rights questions is not the stick but the carrot. When in 1963 the EU agreed to a customs union, it led to some progress on improving the state of Turkey’s prisons.
On the religious question the European reaction, judged by the comments of politicians and the reports of the media, is too often of the knee-jerk variety. They often see the present government as some sort of Islamic Trojan Horse. Although there is for the first time since Ataturk an Islamic government in power in Turkey it needs to be underlined that Erdogan in the presidential contest in 2018 gained only 53% of the vote, despite the election being held at the time of a state of emergency. His party only gained 43% of the vote in the simultaneous parliamentary election. Since then, Erdogan’s popularity has dipped. In June 2019 in the critical contest for mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan’s hand-picked candidate went down to defeat. Erdogan has tried to Islamise the country but maybe he has gone as far as he can, despite his ruthlessness in the widespread detention of journalists, judges, academics, opposition politicians and trade unionists. Important political leaders are still free and active and gearing up for the national elections next year. Overall Turkey is certainly much freer than Russia, although Turkey has far more journalists and opposition activists jailed.
If in these elections Erdogan is unseated Europe should take the historic leap and invite Turkey to join the Union. If the EU made it clear that it would be pleased to re-open accession talks if Erdogan were defeated, a portion of the electorate would probably change their allegiance to him.
If Turkey knew it had a real chance of entering Europe it would probably house clean rather rapidly. The incentive certainly worked in central Europe, where a number of potential ethnic disputes were sorted out surprisingly quickly once the lure of membership was dangled before them.
It is as bad for Europe to be isolated as a “Christian club” as it would be for Turkey to feel banished to the Islamic world. Europe should not draw such lines on the map. They are most definitely counterproductive and, ultimately, they could be dangerous.