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Do Turks still care?

Modern Istanbul. Photo: flickr/Mizrak
Modern Istanbul. Photo: flickr/Mizrak

The growing impression that European leaders are no longer willing to champion the cause of Turkish accession is mirrored by the equally popular notion that Turkey itself has lost interest in joining the Union. In this view the AKP government's diplomatic overtures to countries like Syria and Iran, combined with its recently virulent criticism of Israel, are signs that Turkey is turning away from the West in general and the EU in particular. "Erdogan understands that he doesn't stand a chance in Europe for the time being, and he is instead redirecting his energy toward the East," wrote Bernhard Zand in a recent edition of Der Spiegel.

During the last two years, a number of "turning points" were said to have delivered proof of Turkey's shift away from the West. One was the January 2009 incident in Davos, when Prime Minister Erdogan, furious with Israel for its invasion of Gaza, accused Israeli President Shimos Peres of "knowing well how to kill people". Another came at the end of May 2010, when Turkey responded with even greater rhetorical outrage after Israeli commandos killed nine Turks aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara. Yet another followed on 9 June 2010, when Turkey refused to back UN sanctions against Iran, voting against them instead of at least abstaining.

There is also a corresponding assumption in some quarters that a newly confident Turkey with a booming economy is getting ready to part ways with the EU accession process. In February 2010, Asia Times reported that "frustrated with perceived European insincerity, a minority in the AKP is arguing Turkey no longer needs the EU." Several months later, Suat Kiniklioglu, a leading AKP deputy, told Joost Lagendijk that Turkey no longer needed the EU anchor. "Its economy is strong enough to do without a union that is struggling with its own financial problems," wrote Lagendijk, paraphrasing Kiniklioglu, "and the reforms will continue because there are strong domestic forces behind them." Ali Bulac, an influential conservative thinker, went a step further when he argued in his column for Today's Zaman: "We don't need the EU to implement needed reforms. Let us decide what we need … Europe is an old lady with no energy left … Our route is obvious: the Muslim world, which includes Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa." Among many Turks and Turkish policymakers, there is (again) a belief, as Cengiz Aktar told ESI in November 2009, "that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU – and that Turkey can go at it alone."

Many observers point to the most recent Transatlantic Trends Survey (2010) published by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) to illustrate how much the mood has changed in Turkey: the GMF poll found that while in 2004 73 percent of Turkish respondents considered EU membership to be a good thing, by 2010 that number had dropped to 38 percent. This is then interpreted as strong evidence of "Turkey drifting apart from the West." But is it really?

To begin with, it is useful to put such polling results in context. At a round-table held in February 2009 in Zagreb with the title "Croatia: Tired of EU Reforms?" a Gallup poll was presented which indicated that merely 29 (!) percent of Croatian citizens thought that EU membership was a good idea. Another survey put this number even lower, at 26 percent. Yet few people worried about Croatia's "drift to the East". The obvious explanation for these results was intense frustration with the EU accession process at a moment when Slovenia was blocking Croatia's accession negotiations over a territorial dispute. As for Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia or Latvia, surveys in 2001 revealed a very similar mood. According to a Eurobarometer survey from October 2001, only 33 percent of Estonians and Latvians, and 39 percent of Maltese, supported EU membership – this, a mere three years before all three joined the EU.  There was also no shortage of articles analysing declining popular support for EU membership in Poland.

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European Parliament, Strasbourg. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/inyucho

At the same time, anybody with a sense of Turkey's recent history is aware that there is little that is new about deep-seated distrust of the intentions of both the West and the EU. In fact, compared to the statements made by Turkey's leaders at the beginning of this decade, today's "Euroscepticism" is mild. In 2002 Deputy Prime Minister and MHP party leader Devlet Bahceli stated that "the current slogan that EU membership is the only choice for Turkey is disgraceful and degrading for the Turkish nation." In 2002 Tuncer Kilinc, the secretary general of the then all-powerful National Security Council, stated at a conference that the EU was a "neo-colonialist force that is determined to divide Turkey" and suggested that Turkey would do better to search for new allies, including Iran and Russia. In 2002 retired officer Suat Ilhan, who taught at the military academy for many years and headed military intelligence, published a book entitled Why no to the European Union, in which he wrote: "The opportunity for which European waited five hundred years to expel Turks from Europe and Istanbul has come; by no means we should miss this opportunity." The deputy prime minister, the secretary general of the National Security Council, numerous retired and active military figures: these voices were not those of marginal people.

In the years around 2002 such rhetoric reached new intensity. Neo-nationalists revived ideas about Turkish exceptionalism, which had deep roots, evoking the imagery of the 1919-1922 War of Independence when the country was encircled by enemies. In 2003, a report on Turkey by MEP Arie Oostlander also noted that the dominant state philosophy of Kemalism, giving excessive power and role to the military and insisting on the homogeneity of Turkish culture, posed an enormous obstacle on Turkey's road to EU accession. And yet, contrary to anybody's expectations, Turkey was then on the eve of its "golden years" of EU-inspired reforms.

If a tradition of Euroscepticism has deep roots in Turkey, so does a commitment to Europeanisation. Despite the slowdown in the accession negotiations, Turkish leaders reiterate at every step that EU membership remains the country's top foreign policy goal. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu underlines that "full integration with the EU is and will remain the priority … Membership in the EU is Turkey's strategic choice and this objective is one of the most important projects of the Republican era."

 
Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
Photo: Council of the EU

Far from throwing in the towel, Turkey has shown sustained commitment to the accession process over the past two years. In December 2008 it adopted a new National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis, a 400-page document containing detailed information on the legal reforms necessitated by the EU process. In January 2009 it finally appointed a Minister of European Affairs and EU chief negotiator, Egemen Bagis, in a move welcomed by the European Commission. In July 2009 the Turkish Parliament adopted a new law allowing for a significant staff increase in the Secretariat General for European Affairs (EUSG), from 40 to 333 people. (The EUSG has been entirely restructured and now has a secretary general, 5 deputy secretary generals and 14 heads of departments, 9 of which are currently women. Since late 2009 Volkan Bozkir, an experienced former diplomat and ambassador to Brussels, has been heading the EUSG.) In December 2009 Bagis announced a decision to install EU Contact Offices in all Turkish provinces. The negotiations with the European Union, he says, are "the most important foreign policy issue for Turkey."

There is little evidence that Turkey has begun to "shift away from the West", as some commentators allege. Although it has improved relations with Muslim countries, including Iran and Syria, Turkey has also reached out to non-Muslim nations such as Armenia and Russia. And although it has clashed with the US and the EU on the Iranian issue, it continues to provide military support in Afghanistan and remains an invaluable go-between in Syria and Iraq. Numerous experts in Turkey and the EU, including Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself, have made the case that Turkey is carrying out the EU's Neighbourhood Policy on the Europeans' behalf. As Davutoglu put it himself in late 2009, "Turkey's intense diplomatic efforts are not an alternative but are laying the groundwork for Turkish membership in the EU."

A sense of historical perspective might also be helpful. Turkish academic Kemal Kirisci has offered an excellent analysis of this change in a recent essay on Turkey as a "trading state". He contrasts "two eras" in Turkish foreign policy:

"The first one coincides with a Turkey that had serious internal problems and viewed its neighborhood through the lens of national security. Turkish foreign policy-making at the time was dominated by the military establishment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both institutions perceived threats to Turkey's territorial integrity and unity emanating from various quarters around Turkey, including Northern Iraq. During this period, Turkey came close to a military confrontation with Greece in 1996, as well as with Syria in 1998. Furthermore, Turkey threatened Cyprus in 1997 with military action if Russian S-300 missiles were to be deployed on the island. There were also threats of use of force made against Iran, and relations with Russia were particularly strained. Relations with an important part of the Arab world were foul, aggravated by an exceptionally intimate military relationship with Israel. The mood of the foreign policy-makers was probably best captured by a leading figure in Turkish diplomacy, Sukru Elekdag, a retired ambassador and former deputy undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He advocated that Turkey should prepare itself to fight "two and a half wars" simultaneously against Greece, Syria, and the PKK."

The second era is marked by a focus on economic opportunities:

"Turkish foreign policy in the last couple of years has increasingly been shaped by economic considerations – such as export markets, investment opportunities, tourism, energy supplies and the like. Foreign policy has become a domestic issue, not just for reasons of democratisation, identity and civil society involvement, but also because of employment and wealth generation. Possibly the best indicator of this is the sensitivity of Turkish financial markets to a host of foreign policy issues, ranging from relations with the EU to expanding relations with Northern Iraq."

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