Our panellists battle it outby Elif Shafak, Charles Emmerson / May 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Should Turkey join the EU? There was a moment when it seemed possible, almost natural, that Turkey would join the European Union. In 2005 Turkish support for membership was around 80 per cent. Many felt already European in a land that began its westernisation in the 18th century. How ready we were to be accepted into Europe. We who had grown up reading Honoré de Balzac, Miguel de Cervantes, Johann von Goethe and Charles Dickens, and loved them all. This golden moment did not last. The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdo˘gan was primarily responsible for failing to fulfil the accession criteria, which include achieving a proper democracy and the rule of law. Equally problematic were populist politicians in Europe who used Turkey as “the Other” for their electoral advantage. It worked. Membership talks stalled. This tragic break-up played into the hands of ultranationalists and Islamists. They said: “Europe doesn’t want us because we are Muslim. Who cares? We don’t want them either!” The government and media began pumping up neo-Ottoman rhetoric, fuelling xenophobia. Liberals and democrats were pushed aside. Support for membership dropped to 12 per cent. Since then, Turkey’s fragile democracy has been in a downward spiral. The country became increasingly authoritarian. It didn’t all happen because the EU abandoned Turkey. But the rupture made it easier. Today Turkish politics is a mess. But chaos can generate new beginnings. Interestingly, Turkey’s crisis in democracy coincides with Europe’s own identity crisis. What better moment to mend what was so badly broken? Closing doors cannot be a solution when we are all deeply interconnected. Extremism in one place breeds extremism elsewhere. It is easy to discard Turkey’s EU membership as a laughable idea when its democracy is a slowly fading light. The real challenge for all of us who believe in spreading fundamental values—such as the rule of law, freedom of speech and women’s rights—is: can we think and act beyond “tribal borders,” before it all sinks into darkness? Elif Shafak is Turkey’s most-read woman writer and the author of nine novels, including “The Bastard of Istanbul” and “The Architect’s Apprentice” For years, Turkey and the EU have been locked in a fundamentally dishonest relationship. The EU pretended that if only Turkey satisfied a few more technical criteria and changed a few more constitutional provisions, it would be welcomed with open arms. The Turkish elite in Istanbul purred at how they were hauling their backwater cousins ineluctably towards European Enlightenment. Their message: we are Turkey’s destiny. Out in Anatolia a different line was spun: with EU membership, Turkey will be equal to Britain and France, hold tight. It didn’t work. The EU lied. The Turks too, a little bit. Maybe they even lied to themselves. The lie was useful for a while. Promises of membership—half-given and half-believed—undoubtedly strengthened Turkish reform. Some became convinced the lie was true. Belief in Turkey’s European vocation and in EU openness was intrinsic to the self-identity of liberal Turks and Europeans alike. But Turkey’s chances were never as good as they seemed. Turkey is almost as populous as Germany. Violence stalks its borderlands. Any EU member could veto the whole thing. Negotiating accession chapters is not the same as tying the knot. Liberal Europeans liked the idea of a Muslim-majority democracy joining for the message it would send. Many embraced the idea that the AKP were like Germany’s Christian Democrats: religious in name only, fusing tradition and modernity. But idea and reality are not the same. And the love-in wasn’t shared by Europe’s masses. In the end, like all dishonest relationships, it fell into rancour. A reset is needed. But to promise what cannot realistically be delivered—full EU membership—is to invite more bitter and permanent estrangement. More honesty is needed. A privileged partnership which both can stick to. A flow of money, people and ideas backed by permanent mechanisms of co-operation. A long-term means of promoting Turkey’s return to the path of liberal reform, rather than a hastily-given promise, unlikely to ever be fulfilled. We should not mourn past failure only to repeat it. Charles Emmerson is a historian and broadcaster. His works include “1913: The World Before The Great War” “It was an elite project. Those liberals, those dreamers! The masses never really bought into it.” Are you talking about Turkey’s EU aspiration? Or the EU itself? Is it not a double standard to reject Turkey’s bid to join as an elite dream when that is what the EU itself once was? And for a good reason. Not long ago, the European continent was beset by devastating wars—the toxic outcome of populist politicians and jingoistic masses. Today the same danger is surfacing and it faces an identity crisis. The rhetoric of daily politics is reductionist. Politicians love binaries. They say there are only two choices with regard to the future of the EU: accept or abandon. This is a lie. We can create a third option. Keep the EU, embrace the EU, but reform and democratise it from below. Likewise, politicians tell us we have only two options with regards to Turkey. Admission or rejection. Once again, there is a third path. Keep Turkey in the EU, regulate the movement of workers (easily done), and help to reform the country. Let’s be clear. Erdo˘gan’s government is increasingly illiberal and authoritarian. Turkey’s EU bid must be supported not because it has a good democracy, but precisely because it hasn’t. There is a massive danger on the horizon. The polarisation within Turkey coincides with the turbulence in the region. Tomorrow may be too late. Turkey’s democracy and democrats need Europe’s help. Isolation will only foster its non-democratic forces. For many of my friends in the UK or France, the EU is a financial and economic project and for some, a burden. For me, it is primarily about common democratic values. Coming from Turkey, I neither take these values, nor diversity for granted. I share your fear of the European mood these days, the anger of people who think they are taken for granted. I share your concern for democratic values, worth fighting for in Ankara as much as in Warsaw. I want EU reform. Where we differ is in the notion that Turkish entry into the EU would help. Let’s assume elites could circumvent popular opinion in 28 member states and slip Turkey in through the back door. What then? A nasty backlash, I should think. You’re right the EU has sometimes not listened hard enough to the people. Look where that has got us. You argue Turkey’s crisis makes membership urgent (an unappealing pitch to French voters). Would membership help? EU leverage over candidates helped transitions in Spain, Greece and post-Communist Europe. Yet candidates became members only once positive trajectories were established. Should Turkey be allowed in because its trajectory is negative, and conditionality thrown to the wind? Evidence suggests that change stops on entry. Look at Hungary or Poland. Put bluntly: even if it were democratically possible to grant Turkey full membership—it isn’t—this would not solve Turkey’s crisis. It would give the regime an undeserved diplomatic success and insulate it from further pressure. It would cause ructions in the EU, pulling the fragile project apart. The right approach is a calibrated offering which adapts to progress, rather than a one-off signing ceremony after which everyone goes off and does as they please (which is what Erdo˘gan wants). Let’s be imaginative. Turkey and Europe need each other. Their histories and destinies are intertwined. Turkey and Europe do need each other. In general, this means collaboration on vital issues (such as the refugee crisis) or an improvement in trade. I am saying something else. I believe democrats in Europe and in Turkey need each other. As do our feminists and our civil societies. Today “politics disguised as anti-politics” is on the rise. Not only is the EU in crisis, so is the notion of democracy. As I travel, I hear people talking about “illiberal democracies” or “economic progress without democracy” or “benevolent dictatorships.” “Look at Singapore,” they say. “Democracy is a waste of time; focused economic progress is what counts.” This is a dangerous trend in Turkey. Understanding each other means understanding each other’s fears. The rise of far-right groups across Europe is triggered by fear. It’s better if we can talk about them calmly, openly. I understand the fear in Europe of millions of Turks roaming across the continent. I understand the fear that Turkey is culturally, historically, essentially different. However, all these fears can be discussed without going to extremes. EU leaders can easily restrict movement while also bolstering exchanges between students, academics, women’s groups and businesspeople. I, too, have fears. I worry that one day Turkey will stop wanting to be part of the EU. “Europe is not our destiny,” they will say. “We have better alternatives elsewhere.” I worry that this “elsewhere” will be Russia, Saudi Arabia or China. Let us remember that Turkey has been in the EU waiting room longer than any other candidate. All of this doesn’t mean that Turkey is ready for the EU today. Not when its democracy is in a mess. But a categorical rejection will only strengthen the hands of isolationists. However flimsy it might seem against the current of the times, that flame must be kept alight. One of the biggest paradoxes of our times is that despite globalisation tribalism has made a strong comeback. The loss of cosmopolitanism is enormous. Coming from Turkey, a country that does not appreciate the diversity it once had, I can testify to that. Like you, I shudder at sleek über-globalists who see the world’s future writ small in Singapore or spoilt brats who mistake ennui about democracy for radicalism. I’m pretty keen on cosmopolitanism too—though I’ll defend the right of those who are less sure to have their voices listened to (not just heard). Isn’t that democracy? We agree on two things: Turkey cannot join now, and it has been in the waiting room too long. But it is Kafkaesque to suggest the only alternative to the old waiting room is…the new waiting room. Endless accession talks are damaging. (By the by, EU membership without free movement isn’t membership. It’s being an associate of a club to which your access is restricted to the basement snooker room every third Tuesday). I share your fears for Turkey’s future, and its wider ramifications. Right now the EU-Turkey relationship is transactional. The stale debate on membership hangs over it, an excuse for both sides to do nothing. Something new is needed. My preference (if Europe’s leaders muster the vision) would be for massively ramped-up civil society and educational exchange, a mind-meld across the Hellespont and into Anatolia’s hinterland. No Turkish government could reject a far-reaching European initiative. It would undercut the self-serving narrative of poor Turkey rejected by nasty Europe. It could achieve many of your or our aims—without the risk of a European backlash or a French “Non” (just imagine the impact of that). Never say never. But let’s not the make the perfect the enemy of the good.