Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Turkey and the EU: A never-ending story

Turkish people in favor of joining the union, but don’t think it could become reality

by Carolin Biebrach

Almost 50 years ago, Turkey started its first effort to join the European Economic Community. As of 2009 the republic has its first full-time negotiator in the European Parliament; but a membership still seems far away. The political advantages of this membership are clear: more stability, economic strength, increased trade, and institutionalized rights for individuals.

“I think most Turks see themselves as European,” says Andrew Vorkink, former director of the World Bank in Ankara, Turkey. “One has to keep in mind that Turkey has not had a close relationship other than religion with the Middle East, which is seen by many Turks as Arabic and thus less ‘Westernized’ than Turkey,” he says. Vorkink graduated from Harvard Law School majoring in Turkish history and is now a professor for International Law at Bogazici University, Istanbul. Hakan Yilmaz, a professor for political science in Istanbul supports this public support with a 2004 nationwide survey from in which 75% of the respondents favor joining the European Union. Turkey is a highly secularized country, and so are the people’s opinions on the EU. “There are sharp differences between the North (Black Sea region) and the Southeastern Anatolia (Kurdish region) […] in terms of anti-Western attitudes and Turkish nationalism,” says Alsen Bilgen, also a political science professor at Bogazici University. Based on the survey, 86% of voters of the CHP, a center-left party, favor joining the EU. Only 58% of the SP party, a radical right Islamist party, would like to be a part of the EU.

According to Andrew Vorkink, “Western Turkey is substantially more prosperous than most parts of the East, but within each area there are exceptions.” Istanbul is an especially prosperous city. The large poor areas tend to support a nationalistic, and therefore anti-European, attitude. Many Istanbul residents have higher incomes and are involved in business or academia. These parts of society are very likely to support the European Union, states Andrew Vorkink.

European leaders have explanations for not allowing Turkey to join the European Union. One of them is the issue of differing values. “When some European leaders say Turkey is not a part of Europe – which is a ridiculous statement, because Istanbul is Europe’s largest city – they are actually saying ‘Do we want 70 Million Muslims inside the EU when we have difficulty assimilating the several million Muslims who are already here?’”, Vorkink says. Aysen Bilgen says the EU is often considered as a club of rich and Christian nations. Bilgen does not argue the fact that the young republic has some problems. Some cultures in Turkey “are not yet compatible with human rights and individual rights”. “Whoever shapes social policy will shape where Turkey will go,” says Bilgen. Regarding culture, Mohammad Baker says that the major differences come from their differing pasts. He notes that the cultural roots for the Arab nations come from cultural and religious traditions. Baker is from Jordan, but has close relatives in Turkey. “This is totally different in Europe, where the religion has nothing to do in the people’s lives or their habits. In Europe, the culture has been formed over hundreds of years through different kind of revolutions against the old cultures themselves,” says Baker, who traveled a lot in Europe in recent years to work at a telecommunication company. He says the EU should not focus on cultural differences. Rather they should concentrate on the economic aspects of allowing Turkey to join their union. The cultural side of things will develop automatically through the years, as Turkey becomes a member. This is especially true because none of the European countries would be willing to give up their cultures. Despite the fact that countries like Italy, France, or Germany are all members of the European Union, every country has its own specific culture and values. “Turkey really could be an example of change,” Baker emphasizes the prosperity Turkey could add to the European Union. “I also know and see that Europeans refuse to see the complexity and heterogeneity of Turkey and its citizens. It is easier to exoticize and treat it as an oriental tourist attraction, take photos of religious looking people and conveniently look to the other side when one meets cosmopolitan, agnostic, atheist, postreligious natives as if they do not exist,” says Aysen Bilgen.

History shows that the ongoing efforts Turkey has undertaken to become a full member of the EU have always been accompanied by difficulties, according to Hakan Yilmaz. On July 31st, 1959, the Turkish government applied to the European Economic Community for membership. “Turkey had already been a member of such critical Western and European organizations as the Council of Europe, OECD, and NATO, and seeking membership in yet another newly founded European organization, the EEC, was nothing but the normal thing to do,” Yilmaz explains. The Ankara-Agreement was reached to allow less developed economies to reach the European standards. As soon as those standards were achieved, Turkey would be allowed full membership. That deal came to an end with the military takeover of Turkey in 1980. “On 17 April 1987, the Özal government [Turgut Özal was the leader of the Motherland Party that was elected in 1983] handed in Turkey’s formal application for membership in the EEC,” Yilmaz knows. Two years later, the country finally received an answer from the European Commission stating that Turkey was not ready to take on the obligations of membership due to its existing level of economic and political underdevelopment.

The United States is one of the biggest supporters of an EU-membership for Turkey. As a member, Turkey would be a more attractive target for American investors and would also make it more stable in a critical region. Only 18% of Turkish people think that a membership could become reality within the next five years. Another 18% predict that the EU will never accept Turkey as a member. No matter where the path of the EU and Turkey leads – it seems like a never-ending story.

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