Monday, February 11, 2008

A Turkish Perspective on EU-Turkey relations

Interview by Anne Andlauer
Kemal Kirişci, a professor in Bosporus University’s department of political science, built on his long experience in Turkey-EU relations to discuss seven confusing aspects of the issue.

His conclusion -- Turkey will join the EU if it sticks to its guns -- derives from this extensive experience.

The real impact of EU integration on the transformation of Turkey’s democracy

“Considerable literature has been written on the topic, with authors interestingly reaching roughly the same conclusion that the European Commission Report of 2004 reached. The EU engagement has indeed led to Turkey’s transformation to the point where it sufficiently meets the Copenhagen political criteria. Although this may sound very banal, it does reflect a major transformation in Turkey. One concrete manifestation of this is the way in which the Republican People’s Party [CHP] is today unashamedly referring to Turkish citizens of ‘Kurdish origin’ or ‘descent.’ I would argue that only a few years ago, you would not have heard CHP supporters or the state establishment such as Faruk Loğoğlu, currently the president of the Eurasian Strategic Studies Center [ASAM], talk about the ‘Kurdish problem,’ as they would rather refer to the ‘Southeastern problem.’ That is just one manifestation of how those reforms have trickled down to today.”

What do you find most worrisome?
“There is also recognition that these reforms have been sliding back in certain areas -- freedom of expression being a conspicuous one. What I find most worrisome and disappointing is the way in which bureaucrats, who had begun to change and think European membership could be real, slipped back into old ways of thinking about Turkey’s relations with the external world and in particular Europe and the European Union. The old, established way of thinking is often referred to as the “Sevres Syndrome.” Until about a year ago, these bureaucrats had begun to look at the EU and to nongovernmental organizations from outside Turkey as partners. But now they are breaking that cooperation and are much more distrustful of the international community. It is this particular type of retreat that I am most concerned about, and I attribute it primarily and overwhelmingly to the EU’s attitude toward Turkey over the last year and a half.”

The slowing down of reforms: internal or external causes?
“Whether enthusiasm resurfaces and becomes conspicuous again will depend on the EU.”

“I would say the cause of that slipping back primarily comes from outside Turkey. It is especially driven by the ‘Nicolas Sarkozy factor,’ which encouraged Angela Merkel on that road. That has repercussions in Turkey as it does in the rest of Europe. Such repercussions have benefited those interest groups in Turkey who have always been skeptical about EU membership, and it has strengthened their hand vis-à-vis those who want the reform process to go ahead. In the government, on the other hand, I feel that there are those who had been genuinely committed to the European membership project, but there is also a group that had always been skeptical about it. I am speculating that this last group is quite happy at the moment. But then there is another group that is neutral and would not mind going along with the membership project, but is nervous about public opinion in Turkey. In 2006, the prime minister made a speech in Bilecik, which is a very symbolic city in the history of Turkish nationalism, and that was the point from which he could have fallen into the trap of populism and played the card of Turkish nationalism. But then he went back to a strategy that I think played a critical role in him winning the election this year. Right now, if there is indeed a reconsideration of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), I think the larger group may take over again and that we may begin to see an EU enthusiasm, not matching the one from 2002-2004, but going at least half way there. Whether that enthusiasm surfaces and becomes conspicuous will again depend on the EU.”

EU skepticism in Turkey
“The Turkish public is euro-skeptic, but the leadership and the EU can change that.”
“EU skepticism in Turkey is both homogeneous and not. It is homogenous in the sense that Turkish education and socialization in general exploits this Sevres Syndrome. The majority of Turks look at the world through the glasses of the Sevres Syndrome, and whatever you say, their gut feeling is that there are all kinds of conspiracies going on in the world to weaken and divide up Turkey. This is something that you cannot easily change. Right now, I think the overwhelming majority of the Turkish public is utterly confused and surprised with what is going on with the United States, as they tend to believe that this is not real and that the US, in one way or another, is going to strike Turkey very bitterly. That said, leaders play a very important role and that enthusiasm of 2002-2004 was very much a product of the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] leadership and of civil society at large, who genuinely believed in this membership in addition to the fact that the EU kept sending the message that if Turkey met the Copenhagen criteria, negotiations would start. The public believed it and the EU delivered it. But now, this is no longer the situation, and everything will depend on the leadership and on the EU. But going back to the enthusiasm of 2002-2004 is going to be very difficult because the memory of being let down is going to be fresh and opened to populist exploitation. The moral of the story is that the Turkish public is skeptical but leaders can change that, if the EU is capable of supporting that leadership in the EU membership process.”

The core motives behind Turkey’s European ambition
“Turkey is a very schizophrenic society. On the one hand it has always felt distrusted and suspected by the West, while at the same time it has admired it, envied it and wanted to be part of it. It goes all the way back to the Ottoman Empire, which has always been a part of Europe. And I would go so far as to argue that France could not have taken its hexagonal shape without the Ottomans being part of that European diplomacy and politics. So on the one side you have this fear, this mistrust … that you have to beat somebody to build your own identity, and on the other the legacy of Atatürk, very much turned to Europe.

“The second aspect of it has to do with the history of the region, whose peoples have always been intermeshed with this part of Europe. People have been educated or married from this area, they have been part of the culture -- you cannot understand Chopin, Mozart, Rossini … without that continuity. Also, when you look at Turkish trade or movement of labor and capital, it has become much more diversified. It is more and more going to Russia, to Central Asia, increasingly to Iran ... and this is why you have generals, politicians, academics and journalists who argue that Turkey should look for alternatives to the EU. But when you really scratch the surface and look into the depths of these economic and social relationships, again you see Europe’s presence there.”

Where else do you see Europe’s presence?
“A third trend, and the one I wish had the heaviest weight, is democracy, human rights and pluralism. When the prime minister talks about these things, I think he believes in them much more than any other politician before him, but I still feel that is has not penetrated into his genes. For example, a couple of weeks ago in the context of the debate on affirmative action in favor of women, there was one lady who maybe was a bit aggressive and was arguing that even Rwanda had special quotas for women. The prime minister got mad and asked, ‘Should Turkey be like Rwanda?’ That reaction very much tells me that it is not yet there. But again, he is way ahead of many others before and in the present. Hand in hand with this I would include secularism, which is a very sensitive issue. Turkey has interpreted secularism in a very Jacobin, French manner, whereas the Anglo interpretation of secularism is much more flexible. I think there is a movement in that direction in Turkey, but it is a very painful one. Given that, when I look at the rest of the world, the only place where Turkey could fit in is Europe, not Egypt, not Syria, not even Russia. All these factors put together push Turkey, willingly or unwillingly, closer to Europe.”

Turkey and the EU ‘identity crisis’
“Selim Deringil wrote in the conclusion of a paper titled ‘The Turks and Europe: The Argument from History’ that ‘when your identity crisis has lasted for some 200 years, it is no longer a crisis, it is your identity.’ I mean, what is European identity? What is Turkish identity in that respect? Sarkozy’s definition of a European identity is a very Carolingian one, an identity that does not exist in Europe but is just in his mind and one that is divorced from reality in Turkey. Europe nowadays is going through a crisis because that identity and the reality no longer match. In that context, another game is being played in EU corridors which has nothing to do with EU identity but more with domestic politics at a time when clearly European public opinion is very concerned about Islam, terrorism and whatever Sept. 11 represents.”

The harmonization of immigration policies with the EU

“Turkey will not trigger a change in policy if it is not at least 60 percent sure that the membership is going to take place.”

“Normally, Turkey should have started to harmonize its policies and legislation in a wide area of issues that are listed in the accession partnership document -- and one area refers to immigration. But there is not much happening there. There was such childish enthusiasm that by 2005 Turkey would put into place legislation to adopt the Schengen visa system. They have given up, and I personally very much approve of it. That would have prevented a whole former Soviet world from moving in and out of Turkey as freely as they do nowadays. There is a conflict of interests there -- Turkey should have signed a re-admission agreement, but even the EU Commission has given up on trying to get that agreement. The reason for this is partly that the commission recognizes that Turkey has lost trust in the EU and that they are not going to accept the re-admission agreement as long as they do not trust the other side. Several observations can be made with regard to refugee policies, including this infamous lifting of the geographical limitation -- but Turkey will not trigger a change in policy if it is not at least 60 percent sure that the membership is going to take place.”

So immigration issues are very much tied up…
Yes, and I would argue that compared to other issues (environment, transportation, competition, etc.), this question is a much more difficult one. When you look at the agenda for the accession partnership document, there are many issues that, if Turkey could proceed with them, would benefit Turkey whether there is eventually membership or not. And I suspect that in those areas some progress will take place. But when it comes to immigration issues, it will not happen because adopting and implementing those policies could only be beneficial to Turkey if it becomes an EU member. If it doesn’t, it will undermine its interests in cutting jobs, to say nothing of rebuilding the walls of the Cold War era.”

What about immigration from Turkey?
“On that point, the negotiation document made it quite obvious that when membership occurs, Turkish citizens may not be able to enjoy the same kind of rights that the rest of European citizens do. On that, I and others have been arguing that a EU that engages and assists in Turkey’s economic growth and stability might discover 15-20 years down the line that even if they pressure Turkey, there might not be Turks willing to move and take up jobs in the EU. Two reasons for this: One is demographic because trends in Turkey show that the Turkish population is starting to age and that by 2022-2023 [the point when there might be free movement of labor if everything goes well], the proportion of population in the 15-64 bracket will be much smaller than today. The second factor is Turkish growth, which will absorb most of the population, as was the case after the accession of Greece, Portugal and Spain.”

Will Turkey ever join the EU?
“I have always been very consistent on that point. I have always argued that if Turkey can stick to its guns, it will become a member of the EU because if the EU blatantly blocks Turkey’s way, it will have inflicted damage on the one and only pillar that holds the EU together -- and that is ‘Pacta sunt servanda.’ Undermining that would be triggering the implosion that many are afraid of today. But I don’t know if Turkey can sticks to its guns because the Turkish public and Turkish politics are always very insecure and obsessed with what others are saying about Turkey. The United Kingdom was faced with the same problem when Charles De Gaulle vetoed negotiations for accession to the EU -- but Turkey is not the UK, and I am not sure Turkey has the same self-confidence to really go ahead. But if Turkey can do like the Brits did, meaning keep doing what is necessary, do its homework and avoid engaging in polemics, then it will eventually become an EU member state. But my concern is that Turkey is very sensitive and vulnerable to what is happening in EU corridors.”

* Kirişci is the author of the recently published “Turkish Foreign Policy in Turbulent Times” (Chaillot Papers, No. 92, European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris, September 2006) and “Turkey: A Country of Transition from Emigration to Immigration” (Mediterranean Politics Vol. 12, No. 1, March 2007)


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