TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Time to Take Turkey Into Europe



LONDON-- Once again in Europe the discussion about admitting new members is coming to the boil and, once again Turkey, promised membership of the Union over 30 years ago, is not on the list. In fact it is even worse than that. Turkey is being actively blackballed. At a get-together of European Christian Democrats in March a prominent member, Wilfried Martens, was widely quoted as saying, "The European Union is in the process of building a civilization in which Turkey has no place." It was also widely noted that another participant, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany made no effort, unlike other leaders present, to distance himself from Mr. Martens.

The hand of European chauvinism is again being dealt to Turkey, home to Istanbul, the city that strides two continents, the only city to have served as the capital of three empires, the historic meeting place of east and west, cradle of Christian Byzantium as well as Ottoman Islam. It was Napoleon Bonaparte, the first practical pan-European, who said, "If the world were a single state, its capital would be Istanbul."

What is it then that blocks Turkey from assuming its natural position as the easternmost flank of Europe, a role it has played quite happily as a member of NATO since 1960?

It is its state of economic development, its human rights record, or its religion? It is a bit of all three, but none are totally convincing if looked at with even a modicum of good sense.

Turkey, admittedly, is still a developing country with high inflation, a heavy load of debt, a growing maldistribution of income and over-rapid urbanization. Nevertheless, according to the World Economic Forum, Turkey is ahead of Greece, not to mention its rivals for European membership, Poland and Hungary, in a league table that compares a wide range of major indicators, including domestic economic strength, financial prowess, standing in science and technology and soundness of governmental economic leadership. It is certainly as well placed economically as were Spain, Greece and Portugal when they negotiated entry.

The human rights story, in contrast, is as painfully true as outsiders paint it, although there are many insiders, not least the late president Turgut Ozal, who have worked hard over the years to get their country's house in order. Torture is still practiced widely as a recent report from Human Rights Watch underlines. The war against the dissident Kurds continues with an obsessive ruthlessness. Promises made by foreign minister, Tansu Ciller, to eliminate torture have not been kept.

It is powerful hard line elements in the army who make it difficult for civilian leaders to reach out to the accommodation now being offered by Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish insurgency. If America didn't feel itself so obsessively in hock to the Turkish military in its quest to keep Iraq isolated and Iran and Syria on the defensive it could use the muscle of its large scale military assistance and arms sales, much of which is used to fight the Kurds, to push Turkey to be more accommodating. So far Washington has refused to do more than talk, even that rather discreetly.

However, the most worthwhile approach to the Kurds on the human rights question is not the stick but the carrot. The carrot of the customs union with the European Union, introduced last year, led to some progress on improving the state of Turkey's prisons. If Turkey knew it had a real chance of entering Europe it would probably house clean rather rapidly. The incentive has certainly worked in central Europe, where a number of potential ethnic disputes have been sorted out surprisingly quickly once the lure of membership was dangled before them.

On the religious question the European reaction, judged by the comments of politicians and the reports of the media, is too often of the knee-jerk variety. It sees the present government as some sort of Islamic Trojan Horse. Although there is for the first time since Ataturk an Islamic government in power in Turkey it needs to be underlined that the Islamic Refah Party won only 21% of the vote and that its power base depends on its precarious alliance with Tansu Ciller's True Path party which only agreed to the coalition to save Mrs. Ciller from being prosecuted for corruption charges hanging over her from her days as prime minister. Moreover the current row, army provoked, about the government's effort to Islamize schools is much exaggerated. After all when the army itself was in power in the early 1980s it introduced mandatory religious instruction in the public schools and financially supported religious schools. It is true that the army now is seriously worried about the pace of the present revival of Islam. But confrontation will only feed it and it gives hostages to fortune in the likes of Mr. Martens and Chancellor Kohl. The truth is that Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's Refah party remains a conservative, mainstream party, committed to NATO and, deep down, like most Turks, eager for swift entry into Europe. Indeed, so earnest is its desire, it has threatened to block NATO's expansion into central Europe unless Turkey gets its way on EU membership.

Europe should take the historic leap and invite Turkey to join the union. It is as bad for Europe to be isolated as a "Christian club" as it would be for Turkey to feel banished to the Islamic world. Europe should not draw such lines on the map. They are most definitely counterproductive and ultimately they could be dangerous.


May 14, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

Note: I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172
and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512
http://www.transnational.org   E-mail: tff@transnational.org

Contact the Webmaster at: comments@transnational.org
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF