Turkey and the EU: not yet a marriage of true minds

Some of us had an early start to the week in Brussels, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan addressing a breakfast meeting of the European Policy Centre in the swanky surroundings of the Conrad Hotel, accompanied both by his new EU chief negotiator, Egemen Bağış, and the outgoing EU negotiator, foreign minister Ali Babacan. It was a significant event, ErdoÄŸan’s first appearance in Brussels since the EU summit of December 2004; he had paved the way with a speech to Turkish immigrants in Hasselt the previous evening, appealing to them to integrate into their new homes, which got rather good coverage in the Belgian press. The audience was generally sympathetic (most Brussels insiders are in favour of Turkish membership of the EU, whatever one may hear from the French and Austrians).

Unfortunately, ErdoÄŸan did not really grasp the occasion as he could have done. His speech was too long (45 minutes), in Turkish (though with simultaneous translation available through headphones) and the tone was, frankly, more demagogic than statesmanlike. He spent the first third of it talking about Gaza; despite the fact that ErdoÄŸan and Babacan have more to brag about in regard to Gaza than almost anyone else, his remarks were pretty commonplace. He then complained about the evil French holding up the pace of negotiations, and then threatened to review Turkish support for the Nabucco pipeline if the Greek Cypriots were not forced to drop their objections to opening the energy chapter of Turkey’s accession treaty – a threat he then back-pedalled on later in the day when meeting with European Commission president Barroso, but anyway phrased in a way which suggests that ErdoÄŸan does not quite grasp how the EU’s relationship with its member states actually works.

One shouldn’t be too negative. ErdoÄŸan was clear about his ambition for Turkey to join the EU, and (reasonably) wants more positive messaging to come from the other side of the table. He spoke warmly and convincingly of Turkey’s internal reforms and blamed the opposition CHP for problems (a claim rather forcefully denied by a CHP spokeswoman in the audience). It wasn’t a good speech, but we in Brussels have heard worse: deputy prime minister Abdüllatif Åžener spoke for an hour in bad French at a Brussels conference in October 2006. Turkey’s road to the EU will be a long one, and ErdoÄŸan unwittingly indicated some of the reasons why in his style as much as in his substance. But at least one feels that the direction is forwards, however slowly.

22 thoughts on “Turkey and the EU: not yet a marriage of true minds

  1. I think european patience with Turkey is running out. This is a country which is complains about Gaza, when it has a long history of genocides that run up to today; it is a country that illegally occupies part of an EU member state(Israel has withdrawn 3 times from land it captured in wars); and it is a country with a dismal human rights records with people dying as a result of torture in police station, with widespread corruption as the prime minister’s son-in-law is the sole contractor of government works, a country with widespread ultranationalism and an army role in excess of its function; and a country which is already making imperial demands on the EU.
    Frankly if Turkey does not like the carrot, I think the EU should be using the stick.

  2. Stick? What stick?

    Also: Turkish membership has been part of the discussion since 1964. How many countries have been let in since then? 21? It almost starts to look as if the European countries are not serious about admitting Turkey…

  3. Well, any self-respecting entity wishing to develop towards a single country with a common foreign policy would not tolerate a part of it being under occupation. The EU has tried to be ultra nice to help Erdogan vs more hardliners, but at some point he has to prove he is not one of them.
    It looks more to me like Turkey is not serious about joining. The demands made by Erdogan are simply outrageous. Complaining about France is equally stupid: if you are serious about joining, work to solve issues. Expecting the EU to bend over to Turkey’s demands is hard to envisage, even though we are talking about the EU.

  4. <>

    Well the formal application didn’t happen until 1987. Also none of those other 21 countries had several coups since during talks. Not to mention a dismal human rights records, a low scale civil war and serious territorial disagreements with (now) 2 member states.

    Yes Turkey is put more trough the wringer than, say, Bulgeria, partly also because of it’s population size and low overall income, but a large part of the delay is also due to the country itself.

  5. Will this be decided in Brussels or by the heads of government of the member states? Does it matter what insiders in Brussels think?

  6. Scot,

    I think you’ll find that Turkey’s views on Gaza are pretty close to the EU mainstream. My criticism of ErdoÄŸan’s discussion of the subject is not at all with the substance of what he said, but entirely with the style in which he said it.

    I am glad that you agree with part of the main point of my post, that Turkey will have to adjust its style to the EU’s more than vice versa. I think this is a Good Thing and that the process should be encouraged.


    If your audience is composed entirely of insiders in Brussels, it makes sense to adjust your message to that audience. That was my point.

  7. Yes on the second, because influence runs in both directions. As Turkey comes closer to incorporating enough of the acquis into national law, the fig leaf for some countries to hide behind will become smaller and smaller. Of course goalposts will be moved (that’s one of the things that political life in the EU is all about) but in six or seven years, it will be very difficult to say no to Turkey on technical grounds. At that point, a no has different consequences.

  8. Brussels Gonzo,
    my point on Gaza is that it’s not even a case of the pot calling the kettle black: Turkey’s record with respect to harming civillians belongs in the premier league along with Nazi germany. No other EU country comes close and certainely Israel would not even qualify for more minor leagues. So it’s not justa question of style but of preaching what one does not practice.
    I do not see how human rights or occupation of an EU country to name just two issues are “technical” issues.

  9. @Doug

    Well, it’s not only a matter of adjusting the national law in the narrow sense that you seem to put it. It’s a matter of adjusting to a Western style democracy, adjusting the constitution, adjusting the institutions and the Army’s institutional role not to mention the neighbourly relations.

    Much more complex IMO…

  10. Brussels Gonzo,
    point well taken that Turkey is the one that must adapt. The big question is: Does Turkey WANT to do that? Because what we hear from Turkey is not how they are commited to changing, but how they are being treated unfairly for not fulfilling their MINIMAL agreed obligations! I do not see anything that would make me think Turkey is serious about changing. Do you?

  11. Scot,

    So do you think that these issues are more likely to be addressed if the EU turns its back on Turkey’s application for membership? Or not?


    As I said in my post, ErdoÄŸan was pretty warm in his speech about Turkey’s internal reforms – I didn’t mention it explicitly, but he was particularly keen on bigging up the new Kurdish television channel. I take that as a positive indication.

    On top of that, the fact is that he remains engaged in the EU accession process, and though he does whine about it, he has not pulled out, even though the transformative effects of EU accession are moderately well understood in Ankara (especially by his opponents in the deep state).

    So while I would like to see more evidence that he has internalised what it is all about, and in particular I wished there had been more evidence on display yesterday, it’s not fair to say that there is no evidence at all.

  12. Brussels Gonzo
    I do not share your optimism. The point is that at some point hard decisions will have to be taken, both by the EU and the Turks themselves. A rhetoric that sweeps the problems under the carpet is only preparing public opinion for failure. I do not want to be in an EU that will move the goalposts in terms of human rights or any other issue to suit Turkey. I think the EU has shown EXTREME patience with Turkey. Can you imagine the UK would even talking to Argentina while the later was occupying the Falklands?
    All that patience was precisely to help the moderates vs the deep state. But this is an extremely slow process and meanwhile the average turk is tought by Erdogan among others that the EU is being too harsh and too unfair to them because of their religion, their culture and everything else except the real issues. I do not wish to see an EU bending over to Turkey, which would be what any further concessions would amount to. Erdogan’s initial dealings with the EU were considered as a success in Turkey and Erdogan was hailed as “conqueror of Europe”. That was the moment for Erdogan to say things like “we need major adjustments” instead of acting like a conqueror.

  13. Brussels Gonzo,
    You criticise the speach for being in Turkish – what language is usually used? I always assumed that it was fairly common for politicians to use their native language?

  14. Being a Greek, I’d like to ask for a piece of advice: if it’s true that turkish f-16s flew over two small greek islands in the last few days, not over sea or disputed territorial waters or so called grey zones or whatever, but over tiny islands where a handful of poor greek fishermen live, how should we react? How would, say, Italy or the UK react? How should I as a greek citizen feel over the whole EU-Turkey flirting?

    And of course: where is the EU’s red line?

  15. You criticise the speach for being in Turkish – what language is usually used? I always assumed that it was fairly common for politicians to use their native language?

    Does Erdogan even speak English or another EU language well enough to deliver a 45-minute speech on complex topics? As far as I know, he has never studied or worked outside Turkey for any significant time, so he’s not had the chance to learn other languages in the sort of complete immersion environment that’s necessary for acquiring a full command.

  16. @Mr.Scott
    Even if you repeat a lie thousand times, it doesn’t become a fact. Unfortunately, if something is shouted loud enough, there are always those who believe it.

  17. Here is the key question; Where must we lay the borders of what we consider Europe? For the E.U. is slowly growing from the economic union from which its derived into a political entity, this is an fundamental question . If the E.U. was only about economic co-operation, we did not have to vote about the E.U. constitution. So, as we are clearly heading toward some kind of (re)unification of Europe, it will be logic to consider what country’s in a cultural sense belongs to it. Till now, all the EU members had in common that the are rooted in a strong Christian/humanist or Christian/socialist, communist tradition. Turkey is greatly influenced by the Islam, more than 99% of its inhabitants are Muslims. Should this give any problems? Well, when we take a look what history learns us about this, we cant be very optimistic. Throughout history we can see countless wars between the European empires and the caliphate. Due to WW-1, the European empires as well as the caliphate came all to an end, but they underlying cultural difference didn’t. Just as it is stupid to say that orthodoxy has no big cultural influence on the Russian society since the communist have forbidden the church, it is evident that the Islam has still a big influence on the Turkey’s society after Mustafa Kemal has declared the secular Turkish state. Yes, the religious influence in both country’s has been reduced since the secularisation process, but history shows that a process of secularisation is often followed by an religious revival like we can see nowadays in several eastern European country’s. I am in favour of full economic cooperation between turkey and the E.U., but I don’t think it is an good idea to integrate turkey into the E.U. Why should we convince others about our values about the equal treatment of Gay’s or Women. Is it not discrimination to place our values above those of other’s? Doesn’t future Islamic inhabitants have an equal rights to replace our values with theirs? Just to prevent that the E.U. will be paralysed due to such kind of endless discussions, I think it is a good idea to restrict membership of the E.U. to those country’s who have more or less the same cultural background. History has shown us that even then it’s already hard enough to find mutual consensus.

  18. Here’s what I thought about the limits of the EU back in mid-2004. Obviously, Croatia is going to miss the cut for this years elections to the Parliament. Croatia’s leaders didn’t think the EU was serious about delivering people to The Hague.

    I’m also less optimistic about being right for the next elections. To paraphrase Brad DeLong: The European Union takes longer than you think it possibly can, even after you take into account of the fact that it takes longer than you think it possibly can. On the other hand, five years is a long time in politics, even by EU standards.

    I don’t really mind Erdogan trying to move the goalposts a bit. It shows that he understands how things are done from the inside in the Union. It also helps prepare other leaders for the day when there will be as many Turkish EU citizens as German. No doubt that will be a big change for the Union, but the way to get there is through institutional practice.

    Two thoughts on “civilizational” issues: first, there are a lot of similarities between what is said about the non-Europeanness of contemporary Turkey and what was said about Germany earlier in its history (and not just 33-45); second, Europe’s latest war has been Orthodox versus Orthodox.

  19. Ron:
    The point about reunification is a very good one. But a bunch of directives do not make for
    a country; it takes much more. It takes the french to think that a german problem is also their problem and vice versa. So at the very minimum countries should not enter until past grudges have been fully resolved, else we will have continuous strife.
    With respect to Turkey, I think it is much more than just a religion thing. The reason religion is not an issue in the EU, even though there is a long history of bloody conflicts between say catholics and protestants is that religion is not that important anymore in Europe. With Turkey it is not so much religion as an extreme nationalism. Religion is an issue with respect to practices like honor killings, but these can presumably be clamped down if the will is there.
    Germany became pretty much a model for the EU not by denying its past, but by taking strong measures not to repeat it. Turkey appears to think it can pick the parts of the EU it likes and ignore the ones it does not. And it takes two to move the goalposts and I really see no reason why the EU should agree to that.

    “Europe’s latest war has been Orthodox versus Orthodox”. Meaning Russia vs Georgia? I would not really call it a war. And religion had nothing to do with it.

  20. Turkey has a second option: choosing to be an engine of modernization, democratization and unification among the Islamic countries in its neighborhood.
    I have several Turkish friends with completely incompatible worldviews. Not all of them are really willing to see their country accept all the requirements the EU must necessarily impose on Turkey. Those who harbour these feelings would still count as forces for progress in the context of the Islamic world.
    It would be an unexpected turn if Turkey reoriented itself, but I think it´s both possible and more likely than most would currently allow.
    The EU doesn´t have any room for manoeuvring here. It can´t acquiesce to Turkey dictating to the EU what its policy regarding Cyprus and other matters should be. The onus of decision-making really is on the Turkish side rather than that of the EU.

  21. The funny thing is some people hear and see only they wanna hear and see! It occurs to hardly anybody to test their thoughts with empathy, seeing thru the other side’s eyes.

    Scott says “I think european patience with Turkey is running out. This is a country which is complains about Gaza, when it has a long history of genocides that run up to today; it is a country that illegally occupies part of an EU member state”

    Well, what European patience are we talking about here? If European is so fed up with Turkey, why don’t they just drop the ball, and say farewell to Turkey? The claim that Turkey has a long history of genocides is a fickle of imagination on most records, ready to take everything against Turkey for granted, fit for a person, who never bothers to read the other side. The word genocide is best fit for the European history, not Turkish. Whatever is attributed to Turks as genocide usually disregards the massacre of millions of Turks and other Muslims; and by this mentality, Germans were subject to a massacre by Russians and other Europeans since this mentality simply disregards the non-German deaths, making Germans look like the victims!

    Likewise, those people just simply disregard the fact that Turkey, as a guarantor of the island, legally occupied the north part of Cyprus in order to protect the Turkish minority from Greek terrorists, who were realizing a Turkish massacre at the time on the basis of ethnic cleansing, in order to illegally unite with the motherland Greece. It’s also the Greeks of the island who rejected a recent referendum for unification on equal footing and rights, while the Turks predominantly voted for unification. Likewise it’s the EU, which illegally accepted the Cyprus to EU, with ongoing and unsolved territorial claims despite that it was the Turkish who was in favor of solution while Greeks wanted the whole island for themselves.

  22. It is hard for Turkey to be a part of European Union. Especially in recent years, Turkey lost prestige on the Europe politic stage. So, that’s just a dream for Turkey.

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