If Turkey joins the European Union (EU) it will be its largest member by population, and Europe will share borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria. Both prospects are bound to make most Europeans uneasy (to put it mildly), and they may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to Turkey’s EU membership.
Most Turks believe that their country will not be admitted, simply because they are Muslims – although, according to recent polls, a large majority want full EU membership, if only to escape the serious economic and political consequences of the current ruling elites’ ineptitude. The disdain with which EU officials have greeted the human-rights reforms approved by the Turkish parliament on August 3 gives substance to their misgivings, and lends credence to the assumption that these conditions are designed primarily to transform Turkey into a permanently secular state with European values, without actually granting it EU membership. Rendering Turkey ‘Islam-proof’ while keeping it at the gate will serve the dual purpose of securing it as a trade partner and making it an ally against political Islam, at little cost to the EU treasury.
European officials believe that letting Turkey into the EU would cost the EU billions of dollars, given its large population (67 million) and its sizeable agricultural sector. This will leave very little for the integration of the twelve Eastern and Central European countries that have been formally accepted as EU candidates and granted accession rights. The formality of giving them full membership will be completed at the EU’s Copenhagen summit in December. But Turkey, the thirteenth candidate, has no accession rights and only wants the summit to fix a date for the start of membership talks.
The other twelve, all of them former Soviet or Warsaw Pact members, are being admitted under an EU enlargement programme, while Turkey, a NATO member and ally of the West against its communist enemy, is seemingly being excluded. At the time of the “communist threat”, Turkey’s strategic position and large population were vitally important for the defence of the West, and the cost of arming and training its military was not in itself a deterrent.
But Turkey’s rulers apparently believe that, by passing the reforms demanded by the EU, they have paved the way for Turkey’s membership, and that the Copenhagen summit has no choice but to fix a firm date for negotiations. Certainly one of the reasons why prime minister Bulent Ecevit (left) finally gave in to the call for early elections, which he had desperately resisted, and why parliament passed the reforms package, was closely linked to the need to have an effective government and a negotiating programme in place by December.
Ecevit’s illness since May, and his refusal to step down or call early elections, between them caused a political and economic crisis that led to the collapse of the ruling coalition. To end the chaos parliament voted on July 31 to hold early elections on November 3, instead of on their scheduled date in April 2004. Three days later it voted overwhelmingly to approve the reforms-package that the Turkish leaders say will disarm the EU’s objections.
Broadly speaking, the reforms include an end to the ban on Kurdish-language broadcasting and education, abolition of the death-penalty in peace-time, and easing restrictions on freedom of speech. Under the new scheme non-Muslim religious foundations will also have the right to buy property, which they will no doubt exercise to save hundreds of ancient churches that are crumbling throughout Anatolia.
The removal of the language ban will mean that young Kurds can be taught Kurdish, although only as a subject itself and not as a medium of teaching and learning. The right to teach Kurdish does not, however, extend to state schools. Broadcasting in Kurdish will also be permitted, albeit only on non-state radio- and television-stations. The abolition of capital punishment will be a relief to Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, and his supporters, although Turkey has not carried out death sentences for some years, in response to EU objections (Ocalan was sentenced to death on charges of treason in 1999). And as a result of provisions to increase free speech, it will be possible for the first time to criticise the armed forces and to express dissident views without running the risk of going to prison.
Also for the first time, the European Court of Human Rights will have jurisdiction to order retrials in Turkish court cases, both civil and criminal. Some of the provisions, such as those relating to freedom of expression, are not, however, retroactive and will not benefit those already in jail for expressing dissident views. For instance, the four Kurdish members of parliament serving 15-year sentences under ‘anti-terror’ legislation will not benefit; Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dohan and Selim Sadak were jailed in 1994.
After parliament adopted the reforms, a spokeswoman for Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, praised the vote but remained cautious. “The European Union very much welcomes the entire package of reforms,” she said. “We must congratulate the Turkish government and encourage it to continue on the path of reform.” This is another way of saying that Ankara must do even more than it has already if it is to merit EU accession rights.
One of the most fundamental constitutional reforms the current package has not tackled is the role of the Turkish military establishment in Turkish politics, which is mainly responsible for Turkey’s political and economic turmoil over the years. But since the constitutional role of the military also guarantees that Turkey will remain a secular state, an objective dear to Brussels as well, EU leaders are not likely to cross swords with the Turkish generals over this issue, although they can use it to withhold membership. Brussels will cavil at direct military rule but will cooperate secretly with generals exerting control from behind the scenes to achieve Europe’s foreign policy and economic objectives in the region. Western Europe and the US have, after all, exploited military control over other Muslim countries to achieve similar objectives.
The extent of the generals’ responsibility for Turkey’s problems, and their animosity towards an Islamic role in the country’s affairs, are demonstrated by the current political crisis. Bulent Ecevit, the ailing 77-year-old prime minister, has been able to hold the entire political machine hostage with the support of the generals, who agree with him that an early election will lead to victory for the ‘Islamist’ Justice and Development Party (AK). The AK, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is supported by two parties that are banned by the military for being “too Islamist”. But Erdogan, who is himself banned from standing for parliament for the same reason, says that his party is not Islamist and does not want to mix religion and politics. The AK also supports Turkey’s entry into the EU.
But the EU issue is far less important than the task of solving Turkey’s political and economic crisis, and the Turkish rulers should concentrate on this instead of on EU membership, which in any case is probably not achievable.