A Changing Turkey Awaits European Recognition
Turkey's effort to move toward European Union membership faced a severe blow on December 13, when EU leaders in Copenhagen refused to commit to a date for accession talks. That decision has left Turkey still waiting for European affirmation after nearly four decades.
Waiting is a familiar mode for Turkish leaders and citizens. Turkey signed an association agreement with the union's predecessor in 1963, and formed a customs union with the European Union in 1996. But as the European Union became more cohesive, Turkey did not get closer to membership. The country failed to properly address reform concerns that the Europeans raised in 1987, mostly because of political bickering and mismanagement.
Since 2001, though, the criteria for accession have moved to the center of Turkish political life. European leaders in Copenhagen, citing various reasons, said that Turkey could not hope to set a date for accession talks until the end of 2004. Even the most optimistic forecasters say this schedule would delay membership in the European Union for at least another decade.
Desire for membership led Turkish lawmakers to broaden free-speech protections. It also led officials, with guidance from the International Monetary Fund, to privatize several industries and reform finances beginning in February 2001. Turkey abolished the death penalty in August, in keeping with European strictures, and began confronting its policy toward Kurds. Officials in Copenhagen said they would need to see these reforms in practice before admitting Turkey. This raises new questions about how smoothly Turkey can change course and how ready Europe is to recognize Turkish progress.
It is unclear that Turkey can tailor itself to EU requirements in two years. It is also unclear whether the European Union, which is enlarging to absorb small countries, is ready to include Turkey's nearly 70 million citizens. After the Copenhagen summit, some Turkish observers revived the claim that the European Union is a "Christian Club" without any Muslim nations. However, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul rejected the use of this term. Similarly, initial complaints that the Union was "discriminating" against Turkey faded, and Gul pledged his month-old government's commitment to the reform agenda. "We will go ahead with reforms for the Turkish people," he said. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads the ruling Justice and Development party, also spurned any self-pity. "This is the time for the country's take-off," he said on December 15. "We will continue, with determination, our journey with the EU."
Erdogan's formulation stresses the benefits that Turkish accession could bring to Europe. As currently configured, the European Union includes 18 million Muslim citizens, for whom Turkish membership might provide a vital link to Islamic heritage. Turkey serves as a physical bridge to countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia and would encourage European leaders to deepen their connection to these countries. This dynamic might eventually make Russia more solicitous of EU priorities, and could bolster efforts to promote and enhance democratic values and practice throughout the former Soviet Union.
This is, undoubtedly, an ambitious agenda for a Turkey that still needs to cement a host of reforms. But Turkish citizens seem ready to animate 2001's legal reforms by exploring the promise of free speech and political participation. Most Europeans presumably see their culture as distinct from what goes on in Turkey. However, as Europe plays an increasingly weighty role in global politics, the role and potential of a truly modern Turkey may become harder to ignore.
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.