Why The EU Must Embrace "the general enemy Ottoman"

This December will likely see Turkey begin negotiations to join the European Union, a development fraught with concern. For starters, the thought of the EU, a.k.a. Christendom, joining with the cultural descendents of the people Shakespeare termed “the general enemy Ottoman” raises plenty of hackles. Turkey’s frequent military coups, politically immature electorate and bloody ethnic conflict with its Kurd population don’t much sweeten the pot.

But should Ankara be snubbed at this stage, Turkey may well find itself unmoored from the West, its domestic reformers politically ruined and moderate Islam discredited amongst its population. As it now stands the EU is fulfilling its moral purpose by providing financial aid and the promise of future partnership and prosperity in an effort to spur Turkey toward a dynamic and humane future. But whether this encouragement will continue depends on how well the Turkish Republic meets the Copenhagen political criteria.

Set down in 1993 by the European Council, united Europe’s executive body, the Copenhagen criteria stipulate that “membership [in the EU] requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and [protection] of minorities.” Last July saw Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamic populist Justice and Development Party, make some ambitious moves towards meeting these mandates.

Presenting themselves as Turkey’s answer to Europe’s Christian Democrats, so to avoid the fate of their religiously oriented predecessor, Welfare, which was outlawed by the Constitutional Court in 1998 for undermining secularism, the party has used its electoral mandate to pass legislation aimed at reducing the military’s influence in domestic life, most notably by reducing the historically powerful National Security Council to a strictly advisory capacity.

Established in the wake of the 1980 coup, the NSC, though its ten members are split evenly in number between civilian and military representatives, are in practice the channel through which generals’ dictate government policy. Part of the role the military has assigned itself, mostly in the interest of stability, is outlawing parties and arresting peoples who threaten the nation’s democratic secularism, which is of course limited, though perhaps necessarily, by such practices. To solidify the military’s position Article 118 of the Turkish constitution, added following the coup, gives the Council’s conclusions “priority consideration.”

The NSC, in compromising democratic legitimacy, is part and parcel of a distinctly Turkish condition in which an authoritarian ruling class, acting at once as watchdog and pressure valve, imposes secular modernity by fiat. But this arrangement has both diluted Turkey’s republican credentials and infantilized the electorate. Reliance on the armed forces to come to the rescue whenever voters suffer for their irresponsibility at the ballot box has rendered them susceptible to demagoguery, most famously former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbaken’s absurd Pan-Islamist rhetoric. In Turkey, all is fair game until the army confiscates the punch bowl.

Many in the armed forces are tired of playing nanny and would like to see their role reduced to the strict concerns of national defense, though there is much controversy within their ranks concerning the timetable of such a transition. But until the military stops imposing political leadership, it’s difficult to see how Turkey can be seriously considered for EU membership.

The problem of Kurdish separatism is no less thorny. The military went well past the bounds of civilized warfare during its conflict with the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) throughout the 1990’s, torturing captives and razing entire Kurdish villages; hardly the sort of behavior the EU expects of its members.

The 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan brought the guerrillas to heel — but at the cost of 30,000 mostly civilian lives. Öcalan was originally condemned to death but later had his sentence commuted to lifetime imprisonment in keeping with EU prohibitions against capital punishment. Over the past few years, Turkey has granted amnesty to many imprisoned PKK members who hadn’t engaged in violence. Presumably, these actions were taken largely to impress Europe, and for a moment it seemed as if Turkey was moving toward conciliation with European mores.

Equally encouraging, the Justice and Development Party has made bold moves to legalize Kurdish language courses and broadcasts, moves that a few years earlier the nation’s political and military elites would have equated with treason.

Such measures have been treated skeptically abroad; speaking in Turkey as part of a high level European delegation on March 8, Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen, while approving of parliament’s moves, noted that “implementation [of human rights legislation] would be a key element in the EU’s decision.” Chief among Minister Cowen’s concerns are the hurdles tacitly set by local officials that entangle now-legal Kurdish schools in endless red tape. The concern is that Turkey is putting on a show of reform while changing as little as possible in practice.

One is left with the impression that Turkey is running to catch up with the minimum human rights standards required of any civilized modern state. While its progress has this far been minimal, with the war for Islam in full swing perhaps its best not to push the Turks too far and too hard. We have need of Muslim allies with the potential for developing a real civil society — unlike such venal dictatorships and allies of convenience as Musharraf’s Pakistan and Wahabi Saudi Arrabi— and Turkey, warts and all, fits the bill.  

The EU’s pledged support is itself suspect considering a recent Financial Times report in which Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein is quoted as saying that he hope to prevent Turkey’s economic integration with the Union so to provide a “buffer” against the poorer nations to the east, namely Iran, Iraq and Syria. While Mr. Bolkestein later denied the remarks and other European leaders distanced themselves from them as well there is an uneasy feeling that Turkey is less than welcome. Its hardly surprising that the role of nag has been played by the Irish foreign minister Cowley, whose country notoriously dragged its feet on the most recent round of expansion as outlined in the Nice treaty and is less than excited by the inclusion of a large and poor state with which it will have to share generous subsidies.

While such unheroic motives are understandable considering how Ireland has prospered under the EU’s roof, the alternatives are to providing Turkey with similar aid or risk, losing the world’s only Islamic democracy, however flawed.