Turkey and the EU: Will they Split before they Marry?

If Ankara enters into accession talks this week with the European Union, it will do so bitter and disillusioned. Support for Turkey's move toward the West is diminishing back home. And the anger last minute conditions set by the EU have generated pose considerable political risks -- not just for Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- euphoria over Europe in Turkey is long gone.
AFP

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- euphoria over Europe in Turkey is long gone.

Perhaps it has to do with his own domestic bliss, or perhaps it's the number of famous people whose marriages he once consummated as the mayor of Istanbul. But it's clear: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan loves to compare foreign policy to marriage.

Turkey's entry into the European Union, Erdogan once confided to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is like a "Catholic wedding." The Italian, a Christian, immediately understood what his Muslim Turkish counterpart meant: a boisterous party, much fanfare and ado, and a bond that lasts until death do us part.

That was three years ago, at a time when euphoria for Europe had reached its pinnacle in Turkey. Back then, 85 percent of Turks supported EU membership. Berlusconi had come to Istanbul to attend the wedding of Erdogan's son, Bilal. He was followed later by his Greek colleague, Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, who attended the wedding of Bilal's sister Ersa.

These days, though, euphoria for European membership is shrinking by the week and only 60 percent of Turks still say they support EU membership. Yet again, Erdogan has found a marriage comparison to pointedly describe the current situation: The constant new preconditions being set by the Europeans so close to the start of accession negotiations -- including the consolation of a "privileged partnership," -- is tantamount to "going to the altar and suddenly saying: 'Let's just stay friends.'"

After serious last minute diplomatic wrangling -- which included a plea for help from United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- Turkey finally got the go ahead on Monday from the European Union to begin negotiations for eventual membership. Of course, with Austria unwilling to budge, the outcome of Monday's marathon diplomacy was anything but certain until the very last minute. And as of Monday evening, it was still uncertain whether Turkey would accept the final agreement.

In Vienna, where memories of Turkish-led Ottoman Empire invasions of Austria are still a regular part of history lessons, politicians demanded last week that any accession negotiation framework for Turkey also include a provision of a "privilege partnership" if negotiations for full-membership were to collapse. But critics of Austria alleged the country had ulterior motives: its desire to have accession talks fast-tracked for longtime ally Croatia. Elements of xenophobia and Islamophobia were also alleged.

With such complicated twists and turns just before the start of negotiations, Ankara is looking to Brussels with bitterness and disillusionment. Indeed, support for Turkey's Western ambitions are waning, and opponents of the EU within Turkey are returning to the forefront.

A few weeks ago, the sentiment was different. The Turkish press viewed the outcome of German parliamentary elections as the "burial of the privileged partnership" idea championed by conservative chancellor candidate Angela Merkel. But the mood nevertheless remained skeptical. "Even if the negotiations begin on Oct. 3, who knows what will happen on Oct. 4 or what crises will result in the suspension of talks six months later," the Turkish daily Sabah wondered.

So why this misery on a day that diplomats in Ankara have been working towards for 50 years -- one which is supposed to herald the consummation of an historic mission that is cemented in Turkey's state doctrine? "We Turks only go in one direction," the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal, better known as Atatürk, once told his people, "West."

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül meets with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (center) and French President Jacques Chirac in Copenhagen.
DDP

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül meets with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (center) and French President Jacques Chirac in Copenhagen.

On the outside, the cause of the disagreement couldn't be more mundane. It's linked to the complicated situation on the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Ankara has refused to recognize the government of the southern Greek half of the island as representatives of the entire island and it has refused to allow ships and planes from the Republic of Cyprus to use Turkish sea ports and airports. Europe, however, has made the outcome of negotiations with Turkey contingent on Ankara's official recognition of the EU member state. Without taking this step and without opening up its borders for the unrestricted transport of goods from Greek Cypriots, the European Union's transport minister, Jacques Barrot, has said, it would be impossible to lead the accession talks to success.

The Turks are being too obstinate, but it's also possible that Brussels bureaucrats are sticking too close to the script, observed a self-critical Western diplomat in Ankara. The Europeans have given too little recognition to the fact that Erdogan has stripped the leader of Cyprus's Turks, Rauf Denktas of his power. Nor has Europe given proper recognition to the fact that the northern Cypriot Turks enthusiastically embraced the United Nation's plan for the island's reunification. It was, after all, the Greek Cypriots who rejected the plan in a referendum vote in April 2004, just before the EU expanded by 10 members, including a divided Cyprus.

These days, the Cyprus conflict is being viewed in Turkey as a symbol of the growing apprehension for the entire Europe project. Turkish columnist Semih Idiz has described it as the "enough is enough sentiment." "If the government were to declare today it was going to break off relations with the European Union, they would probably be greeted with broad accordance."

During recent months, EU opponents in Turkey have been awakening from their political coma. Supported by strong signals of support from Brussels, Erdogan quickly put pressure on them after he entered office. They include the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), hardliners in the Turkish General Staff and the firm Kemalists within the state apparatus, or "bureaucratic oligarchs," as Erdogan likes to disparagingly call them.

Recently, the winds have changed in Europe, as well. Following the failure of referenda on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands, criticism of Turkish EU membership has also increased, and many in Turkey have the feeling the country is being pushed to drop its aspirations. A sort of bunker mentality is gaining traction here.

"If I were a European, I wouldn't accept Turkey in the Union either," says Emin Cölasan, derisively. The stalwart nationalist columnist for the Turkish daily Hürriyet is considered the mouthpiece of the conservative Turkish Officer Corps. When Erdogan came back from Brussels one year ago, the prime minister's colleagues cracked jokes about Cölasan and many didn't take him seriously.

A year later, his columns are once again required reading for the chattering classes. The EU, he recently wrote, has "put Turkey in its lap" like an underage child. And he argues that the reform laws that have been implemented by the government under pressure from Europe have weakened the Turkish state. He alleges reforms would make it impossible to efficiently fight against terrorism, that they would encourage Kurdish separatism and increase the influence of Islamists. "Everything that is in the interest of the Europeans," Cölasan said, "has destroyed our national honor."

Other critics of EU membership argue that the EU will attempt to colonize and plunder Ankara. They say Brussels has fed Turkey a constant stream of lies and it is attempting to impose strictly Christian values on Turkish society. The head of the MHP party in Istanbul, Ihsan Barutcu, even compared the EU with a horse, saying: "You can only mount it if you can steer it."

Another popular line is that the only friends Turks have are themselves. This school of thought has gained currency following the recent debate about the genocide of Armenians. Internationally renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the recent recipient of the peace prize of the German Booksellers' Association, got an unwanted glimpse of that recently. He didn't just get hate mail and death threats after making his recent comment that 1 million Armenians were murdered in the Ottoman Empire and 30,000 Kurds in modern Turkey. He is also scheduled to stand trial on Dec. 16 as a result.

Nationalist commotion at Istanbul's Bilgi University, where protesters tried to counter an conference on Armenian genocide a week ago.
DPA

Nationalist commotion at Istanbul's Bilgi University, where protesters tried to counter an conference on Armenian genocide a week ago.

It gets worse. After Turkey's justice minister vilified the organizers of an academic conference on the question of Armenian genocide as "traitors to their country," a court banned the meeting. Last week, a private university disregarded the court and held the conference, but protestors showered participants, including a former Turkish foreign minister, with eggs.

Religious minorities in Turkey are also reporting bad experiences with the state apparatus. The Alevites, a Muslim faith derived from Shiite, claim that they are discriminated against by a Turkish state that exclusively supports the country's Sunni Islam. If the situation doesn't change, they have threatened to take their case to the European Court of Justice, demanding equal status with the Sunnis.

Turkey's deputy head of government, Ali Sahin, also recently described the recent invitation extended to Pope Benedikt XVI by Istanbul's Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I as "inappropriate." That, Sahin said, is a privilege reserved for the government. Back when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope spoke out against EU membership for the majority Muslim Turkey ("a grave error ... against the tide of history"), and Sahin said he would have to make due with an invitation from the president. The whole exchange prompted Foreign Minister Gül to remark: "No country is as good as Turkey at shooting itself in the foot."

For his part, Erdogan has valiantly countered the wave of chauvinism in his country. Last week, he condemned the court's decision to ban the Armenia conference, "because I want to live in a Turkey in which freedom of expression is all-embracing." The Kurdish problem, he said, needs to be solved "with more democracy, greater civil liberties and increased prosperity." Not even an assassination attempt on Erdogan at the hands of a misguided nationalist two weeks ago was enough to disturb his peace of mind.

But in reality, diplomats in Ankara are reporting that the prime minister has given up his belief in the goal of the EU process. But they say he still hopes that the British EU presidency, which is well disposed to Ankara, will be able to open negotiations with one or two unproblematic issues -- national statistics or the environment, for example, two disciplines in which Turkey is already operating at European standards today. When Turkey-critic Austria assumes the EU presidency in January, the Turks believe the negotiations will come to a temporary standstill.

Erdogan wants to avoid an open break with Brussels for at least two more years, because the International Monetary Fund's billion-dollar Turkey Program lasts until 2007. After that he might have to resort to something he always hints at in times of crisis, without being very specific: Turkey has "alternatives" to Europe.

Those alternatives could alarm Europeans, says Turkey expert Bülent Aliriza, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. On a foreign-policy level they could mean turning towards Russia, Iran, and Syria, under already obvious pressure from the military. In particular Aliriza points to Erdogan's relationship to Vladimir Putin: his power seems to impress the Turkish premier.

And domestic politics, overall, might regress: The reignited conflict with the Kurds threatens to grow worse without Europe's tempering influence; the general staff could declare a state of emergency in certain Kurdish provinces. "The reforms wouldn't necessarily go forward," says Aliriza, "since they've clearly been an outgrowth of the EU process."

Expectations are modest, even now that accession talks have started. "What is the EU?" asked the English-language Turkish Daily News last week, in an Internet poll. Almost 800 readers answered unambiguously: the EU was a "modernization project" to 2.6 percent of the respondents, while 46.9 percent checked the box declaring that the EU was nothing but "a Christian club."

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