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Published in the 16-30 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Dark clouds on Turkey’s entry into EU

By Syed Shahabuddin

On 29 October, 2004, the European Union has adopted a Constitution for Europe and taken a quantum jump towards eventual political unification, despite all its racial, linguistic, actual and religious diversity.

Beginning with the creation of the European Economic Community with 6 members, today the European Union has 25 member-states including 10 former communist states, with Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey waiting in the queue. Among them Turkey is chronologically at the top of the list as it took the first initiative in 1967 and its formal candidature has been pending since 1999. But to the recent ceremony at Rome to sign the Constitution, the others were invited as Observers. Turkey was not.

In 2002, EU laid down some preconditions to ‘reform’ the Turkish society, polity and economy under the Copenhagen Criteria. After 2 years of intensive negotiations on fulfillment of the prescribed preconditions, the European Union announced its decision on 6 October, 2004 to open negotiations with Turkey for its admission to the European Union. The next stage is set for 17 December, 2004, when the Council of the Union, consisting of all 25 members, shall decide at the highest level ,the modalities for commencing negotiations which may take another 5 years, even longer, for completion and to overcome the reservations many members nurse on the question.

It is indeed ironical that the Turkish state, successor to the Ottoman Empire which had penetrated into Europe, conquered the Balkans and the Caucasus, marched right upto the gates of Vienna, today aspires to be accepted as a part of Europe. 

Turkey, once the scourge of Europe for centuries, is today standing at the doors of Europe, as a beggar! And Europe appears reluctant to welcome Turkey!

Historical Background

By the end of the 19th century, Europe had reached the zenith of power when a few European States, individually and collectively, dominated the entire world and controlled all its wealth. The Ottoman Empire had been cut to size, its North African possessions had been parcelled out among France, Italy and Britain. In Lebanon, France as the protector of Maronite Christians, enjoyed extra-territorial rights. Zionist colonization of Palestine of Palestine had begun. Yet Turkey, by virtue of its control of the Holy Places, Mecca and Medina, had a special status in the Muslim world. The Sultan of Turkey was recognized as the Caliph of Islam, despite the controversy over the circumstances of the transfer of the Caliphate from the Fatimids in Egypt to the Sultan of Turkey in the 17th Century. At the end of the 19th Century when Turkey was nick-named as the ‘sick man’ of Europe, Jamaluddin Afghani raised the slogan of Pan-Islamism to restore it by uniting the Muslim world under the Caliph, the Sultan of Turkey. In his peregrinations, he came to India. He failed to convert Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to the Pan-Islamic cause but the fire he lit in the heart of many Muslims of the Indian Sub-continent to defend the Khilafat, became a flame, when Turkey, in the wake of its defeat in the First World War, was being dismembered by the Allies. This flame soon died out in India with when the Turkish National Assembly first ended the Ottoman rule and established a Republic and then abolished the Caliphate.

In 1924, the republican Turkey turned its back on the Muslim world, almost renounced its Islamic heritage, adopted Europe as its model and set total Europeanization as its national goal. Turkey became a secular state and was sought to be transformed into a secular society. Islam was exiled from the public domain; indeed even private manifestation of Islam by individual men and women was banned. During period of political instability, the Army took over state power from time to time, often in violation of the Constitution and internationally accepted human rights. It was natural that the Army, which claimed to be the saviour and the protector of the Turkish state, and guardian of the secular order, became the most powerful pillar of the establishment.

Thus Turkey failed to develop into a democratic state.

Similarly Islam could not be totally uprooted from the Turkish soil. Every now and then, Islam oozed out of crevices of the state structure. Turkey could not totally disown its Islamic heritage. 

Geographically Turkey, is an Asian country. Almost 97% of its territory, lies in Asia. Its people are of Asian origin. Culturally, after 80 years of secularization, the Turkish society is still basically Islamic; the historic memories of its people breed a superiority complex as much as its contemporary backward generates resentment. By European standards the Turkish society looks not secularized.

Economically, Turkey remains a relatively poor country. The annual per capita income of Turkey is far below that of Europe even less than that of the poorest member of the European Union with a low cost economy, substantial rural population (30%), lower level of industrialization with little foreign investment. Its annual per capita income of US$ 2790, is about 1/10 of UK (28,530), Germany (25,250) and France (24,770). It is lower than that of Poland (5270) and of Latvia (4040). 10% of the Turkish people live on an annual income of less than $ 750. Its literacy level is 87% against nearly 100% in Europe. Turkey needs massive injection of foreign aid and investment to raise it to a level comparable to that of Europe.

Thus, the existing political, economic and social disparities demanded a long period of probation before the bully of the yesteryear is admitted into the classroom. This explains why since 1999, Turkey is following faithfully the commands of its European teachers in every field rewriting its laws, moulding its economy, redesigning and restructuring its polity, reforming the society, recasting the role of the armed forces in the State and creating a new relationship between the Parliament and the elected Government, on the one hand, and the leadership of the armed forces, on the other.

The noted commentator on international affairs Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that in its bid to pass the European test Turkey has undertaken the most ‘dramatic economic and political and social reforms, deregulated its economy, simplified its tax code, reduced its fiscal deficit and attained 8.2% growth, a better performance than the other 2 or 3 States in the queue.

It is obvious that the Turkish leadership and its westernized elite favour full association with Europe at any cost and are prepared to go the whole hog and fulfill all the conditions prescribed, even those which are discriminatory and humiliating, that the EU lays down, though the Turkish masses may not fully subscribe to this approach.

Since Democracy, Human Rights and Gender Equality figure high on the European Agenda, Turkey has changed its Constitution to reduce the power of the Armed Forces which took over power 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 through military Coups de’etat.

Turkey which had adopted the European model of secularism – separation of State and religion since the days of Kemal Ataturk has tried to enforce it effectively. One recalls the disqualification of a woman member of Parliament who 

Turkey has recognized the Kurds as an ethnic minority and allowed the use of Kurdish language in education and information. Turkey has moved towards freedom of the press. Turkey has markedly improved its human rights record. Turkey has abolished death sentence. Turkey has granted equality to women.

Since sexual relations with consent between two persons (male or female, married or unmarried) are not deemed to be a crime in Europe, Turkey has recently, despite much internal opposition, removed adultery from the list of offences under its criminal law. It has thus crossed what has been called ‘the morality barrier’!

Religious Reservations

Despite long association and collaboration with Turkey during the Cold War and in NATO and in Council of Europe, some basic reservations which are: demographic, religious and political, persist. Given the size of its population 70 million, just less than that of Germany but more than that of any other member of the European Union, with its Asiatic rate of growth, whether Turkey, along with Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo all with substantial Muslim population which will eventually enter EU – as Europe proceeds towards political unification and common citizenship – exercise unacceptable influence within the Union, strong enough to unleash another Islamic wave in Europe’s largely calm religious waters. Will Turkey ever erase its Islamic character? Whether Turkey can ever become a real democracy and truly secular?

Major countries in Europe – Germany, France, Italy and Spain, nurse serious religious reservations on the question of Turkey’s admission.

France intends to hold a referendum to ratify the admission when it comes through. This may mean a veto. Some others may put up similar blockade. French President Giscard d’Estaing, the father of the European Constitution, sees in Turkey’s admission ‘the end of Europe’. The French Prime Minister Jean Pierre does not relish the prospect of the ‘river of Islam entering the river bed of secularism.’ The Pope has spoken of the ‘Christian character of Europe’, although the European Union proclaims itself to be the standard bearer of secularism and bars all discrimination on the basis of religion. The European masses do not relish the sight of too many minarets and domes on their horizon.

It may be argued that Turkey’s inclusion will strengthen Europe’s anti-Zionism and its support to the Palestinian cause. It may help establish equitable economic relations with oil producing countries and safeguard the interests of Muslim world against US the pressures of Neo-imperialism.

Some European leaders also believe that Turkey’s inclusion will pave the ground for the assimilation of Muslim communities now living in various parts of Europe whose population is estimated at about 20 million. They see a positive development in the beginning of Euro-Islam to make Islam more palatable in Europe.

Strategic Reservation

Turkey is a founder member of the NATO. US looked upon NATO and still does as an essential part of the wall of containment against the expansion of Russia and the spread of Communism in Europe. The Baghdad Pact stretched the wall to Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, with the help of Turkey. The West is trying to undermine Russia’s influence in the Caucasus and in Ukraine, Belarus. 
As the USA builds a presence in Central Asia, it cannot give up the strategy of encirclement of Russia. So strategically Europe needs Turkey to checkmate Russian thrust in Europe and towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and the oil rich Gulf. However, with the Europeanization of Caucasus and the building of pro-West buffers between Russia and Europe, Turkey’s strategic importance may go down but it can never disappear.

Despite assertion of independence from USA the EU is an integral part of the West’s overall strategy to deal with the rest of the world.

Yet Europe is horrified at the idea of sharing a common border with the Arab world. It is reminded of the Arab conquest of Spain and penetration into France till the Arab tide was turned at Poitiers in the 8th century. It is reminded of Turkey’s conquest of the Balkans and its occupation for centuries. It recalls Turkey’s advance into the heart of Europe, till the Turkish siege of Vienna was lifted in the 17th century. Yet Turkey’s control of Dardanelles, which joins the Black Sea with the Mediterranean is its greatest strategic asset against a possible upsurge of Russian Nationalism. Europe remains wary of Russian ambition. 

But will Turkey’s Muslim masses accept Europeanisation and de-Islamisation? Will Turkey forget its Turkish roots which lie in Central Asia? Can Turkey, an Asian country change its geography? Can it ever throw overboard its Islamic heritage?

There are the strategic factors which European policy planners cannot ignore. Inclusion of Turkey in the Union will mean that Europe separated from the Muslim World by the Mediterranean shall share a common land border with the Arab-Persian world, with Syria, Iraq and Iran, which may be difficult to manage. Such proximity may mean direct involvement in the on-going Palestinian conflict. It may get sucked into quagmires like Iraq in the gathering storm of confrontation between the USA and the Muslim World.

Economic Effect

Economically, the Union offers the advantage of a Customs Union which creates a vast common market, removes all barriers on internal flow of goods of European or non-European origin and of skilled manpower within the Union.
Turkey will have access to European capital, services and technology. Europe will have a dependable source of manpower to supplement its own, which is being steadily depleted by its falling birth rate and its negative population growth rate. But Europe also knows that uncontrolled Turkish migration into Europe will aggravate religious and cultural tensions and even reopen the historical wounds of hostility. 

Turkey evidently hopes that its entry into EU will not only provide a market for its agricultural and industrial products but accelerate its modernization and industrial development. Europe is apprehensive that it may retard its economic progress, even if Europe agrees to share its prosperity with Turkey.

Will Turkey’s economy be able to stand the pressure of economic union with an economic giant? Will its agriculture and industry survive in a climate of open competition with Europe?

All these breed reservations in the European mind and are often spontaneously articulated by European statesman and academicians. Yet, Europe cannot afford a point blank refusal to Turkey. Along with USA, Europe still sees Russia as a military threat, both in nuclear and conventional terms, and as a political and economic rival. 

Future Prospects
Turkey which served as the cradle of the Islamic Civilization for 300 years cannot be de-Islamized. The memory of the Ottoman Empire, which even in decay was regarded as the key to the Pan-Islamic vision by friends and adversaries alike, cannot be obliterated. Even under Kemalist dispensation. Islam did not vanish from the Turkish society, it only went underground. And after the second World War, slowly it has resurfaced. This can be seen in the growing number of Haj pilgrims from Turkey, the establishment of Islamic parties the return to the Quran and Arabic language, the increasing participation of the youth in religious activities including congregational prayer, and high proportion of women wearing scarves. The case of Turkey’s admission to the European Union is not as easy as that of Romania or Bulgaria and even of other Muslim States like Albania, Kosovo (which is likely to gain independence from Serbia) and Bosnia which fits into an accepted geographical frame of reference and are culturally much closer to Europe.

The path ahead is clouded by dilemma, doubts and apprehensions on both sides. So who can predict the final shape of things to come, even after years of formal negotiations, unless these clouds are dissipated. The Europeans have to free themselves of the traumatic memories of the past and the Turkish people have to feel assured that the Union with Europe shall not destroy their Islamic personality and Asian identity. Both are likely to gain in strength as democracy marches forward and brings power to the masses. And, Turkey may finally fail to make the grade and end up with a special status, neither in nor out, that of an Associate Member! «


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