Turkey must change, but so must the EU

What a difference a year makes. Turkey, which has been persistently knocking at the EU door for over 40 years, was finally allowed into the waiting room last October. But the triumphalism of the moment has all but evaporated. Despite being awarded EU candidate status, Turkey, famously called «the sick man of Europe,» is still treated with a mix of cynicism and fear. Economic worries aside, the European subconscious is filled with grim stereotypes about the gigantic neighbor on its eastern frontier. «Turkey is not Europe, neither geographically nor culturally,» former ambassador Christos Zacharakis said at a recent Athens conference. The truth is that the notion that Turkey is part of Europe requires a stretch of the imagination. Some 80 percent of Turkey’s vast land mass lies in Asia, so it hardly qualifies as a European country. And it is Muslim. Although some 12 million Muslims currently live within the EU’s borders, the prospect of admitting a predominantly Islamic nation into the bloc does not sit well with many Europeans who – let’s face it – see the EU as a Christian club. Zacharakis did not mince his words: «Turkey should be excluded by definition.» In an ironic twist of fate, it was perennial naysayer Greece that gave Turks the green light for its much-coveted EU talks. The reformist administration of Costas Simitis turned decades-old Greek foreign policy on its head, upsetting more hawkish pundits who saw, and still see, bilateral relations as a zero-sum game: What is good for Turkey is bad for Greece, and vice versa. Greece’s dramatic foreign policy U-turn was animated by a strong belief in Europe’s transformative power. In the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Yiannis Valinakis, who attended the discussion held by the ELIAMEP foreign policy think tank: «The EU is the big carrot» that will draw Turkey, the heir to the Ottoman Empire, onto the track of economic and, most crucially, democratic, reform. It’s typical Enlightenment talk: Rich democracies, the theory goes, do not go to war against each other. But the bet does not seem to have paid off, as Turkey has been extremely unwilling, if willing at all, to leave its Ottoman habits behind. But failure may lie not so much with the people as with the theory. «We used to think that our irritating neighbor would change. That modernization and economic growth would change Turkish attitudes toward democracy and human rights,» Theodoros Pangalos, PASOK’s famously outspoken deputy, said. «The question is, does economic reform necessarily lead to democratization? We are not so sure anymore.» Self-destruct button Pessimists point at Turkey’s non-Western power structure with a very influential, and trusted, security establishment (often dubbed the «deep state») that likes to meddle in the political system. Interestingly, each side looks at the EU as means to overpower the other: The military seeks to dampen the government’s anti-secular drive, while the ruling party wants to disable the army’s political hand. To be sure, the generals are weary of EU measures that come with a self-destruct button. Push as the Erdogan government may, the army is determined to block any EU-inspired measures that would see its own power wane. «Never in human history has an elite group voluntarily given up its privileges,» Pangalos noted. «I don’t see why it should happen now.» Stereotypes about historical and ethnic characteristics also abound. The Socialist deputy had many to offer. Turkish society, he said, is too passive to generate bottom-up change. «Ottoman notions about law and power still hold strong in Turkey. After all, Turkey is the only state not to have seen a popular revolution. The Turks, you see, tend to be rather docile,» said Pangalos. Unlike Ankara’s fiercer critics such as Zacharakis, Pangalos, a former foreign minister and one of the pioneers of Greece’s about-face in the 1990s, thinks that even though the outcome is uncertain, the policy is nevertheless worth the effort. «After all, we have no other choice.» Maybe Greece won’t have to make a choice at all. The constitutional debacles in France and Netherlands (two countries with substantial Muslim populations) have thrown the EU into an existential crisis. Apart from venting their frustration over domestic problems, European voters also expressed their uneasiness with the EU’s yawning legitimacy deficit and, more specifically, the bloc’s eastward ambitions. The specter of Turkish immigrants, including – yes – plumbers, flooding Europe’s markets is intimidating many of the continent’s workers. Faced with public pressure, European governments have had to adjust. A European Parliament evaluation report published earlier this week slammed Ankara for dragging its feet on reforms. The document cited insufficient progress on freedom of expression and the protection of religious minorities. Worse for Turkey, the EU called on Ankara to acknowledge the Armenian genocide during the First World War and to recognize Cyprus. To describe those demands as ambitious would be an understatement. Meanwhile, a European Commission report in October will most likely show Turkey a few red cards. Turkish officials are hitting back, accusing Brussels of shifting the goalposts. Often they make brusque comments that resound with arrogance and disrespect. After all, you don’t go around swearing at the members of a family you want to join. Just to make sure, Europeans have introduced a new factor into the equation, exemplified in subtler, yet sometimes dishonest, language. After «variable geometry» and «enlargement fatigue,» «absorption capacity» is the latest addition to the notoriously opaque Brussels lexicon. All Brussels is saying is that even if Turkey is ready, the EU may not be. Growing disillusionment Put off by burgeoning European reluctance, Turkey risks giving up on Europe and slipping back to a more Islamist foreign policy. A recent poll showed the Turks’ growing disillusionment with the US and the EU. Support for EU membership has plunged from 73 percent in 2004 to almost half the electorate. Many people feel that Europe is not sincere about Turkey’s bid and that it is using the Cyprus problem as a pretext to shut the door on them. But to the dismay of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and Turkey’s friends in Europe who want it firmly anchored in the West, the threat of radical Islam and the resurgence of Kurdish violence may well tempt the army to step in or push the country eastward into the trouble zone. And that would be the end of European, as well as US, hopes of making Turkey an example of Muslim democracy – true as it may be that few Arabs would identify with the Turks. The current backpedaling in Ankara’s EU efforts has brought smiles among Turkey-bashers who capitalize on Turkey’s growing troubles – Iraq, the Lebanon troop controversy, Kurdish violence, the role of the military, and the coming elections. Champions of Greece’s taming-the-beast policy are less upbeat. «We must not buy time just waiting for Turkey to come apart,» said Michalis Papayiannakis, a deputy of Synaspismos Left Coalition. «Stagnation is not in our interest. Waiting for a magical solution will only leave us worse off.» But Europe, not just Turkey, needs to change. The double no-vote on the EU constitution has left Europe in a state of shock and politically damaged. True to form, Europe’s politicians shy away from the big picture i.e. the purpose of European unification and Europe’s place in the world. Unless steps are taken to deepen political integration, Pangalos warned, «Europe risks becoming a pure free market zone, stripped of any political drive.» «The EU cannot expand without changing, and it must change even if it does not expand,» Papayiannakis said, urging institutional reform. In absorbing more and more members, the EU seems to have lost its heart.