A recent vote in the European Parliament called for the suspension of EU accession talks with Turkey if it fully implements proposed constitutional changes that would increase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers. Tahir Abbas argues that although both sides appear to be drifting apart, the EU would still have a lot to gain from Turkish membership.

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Turkey’s accession to the EU is a perennial question. A decade or so ago, relations between the two sides were far more favourable but they have since deteriorated. Now there is animosity, disinterest and an almost complete shutting down of relations. Growing levels of Turkoscepticism are rife inside the EU, as well as much disdain and general distancing on the part of Turkey. The future looks bleak.

However, not all is lost in this period of doom and gloom. In spite of the ‘migration deal’ and other ongoing concerns regarding trade, there are the wider questions of movement of people, along with questions of the integration of Islam and Christianity, Europe and Asia, East and West. This is where Turkey acts as a bridge between civilisations. It is why I fundamentally believe that, in the end, Turkey needs to be a member of the EU, even though it is in the EU’s interests rather than the other way around.

The EU has genuine concerns about Turkey’s suitability, and these need addressing. In particular, there is a view, with increasing evidence to support it, that Turkey’s human rights record does not stand up well. This is due to Turkey’s repressive practices regarding journalists, certain media outlets and the violent put down of all forms of resistance to the country’s dominant politics. Silencing academics, disrupting LGBT marches and the general sense of creeping Islamisation, in the public sphere, and in the private, in schools and universities, and in popular culture, is profoundly reversing the traditional centre-periphery divide that has characterised Republican Turkey since the 1920s. These authoritarian stances do not bode well for the future of Turkey vis-à-vis the EU.

Conservative and pious Anatolian Muslims often see the golden days of the Ottoman Empire through rose tinted glasses, but importantly they believe now is their time. The bluster of President Erdoğan feeds into the demand for recognition and status among a significant body of the population left behind by the machinations of a secularised, elitist and inward looking centre. Turkey has undergone intense change over the last decade or so, underpinned by a robust economy as well as the democratisation processes necessary for any nation undergoing the shift from a closed to open society. In recent periods, Turkey has achieved progress in all spheres, while gaining confidence in relations with both East and West, in particular, the EU. Now Turkey faces economic instability, internal turmoil and a lack of confidence in an otherwise charged arena, with Greece on one side and Syria and Iraq on the other.

Turkey was able to look towards entry into Europe with confidence a decade or so ago because the EU was performing strongly. But the EU is facing its own issues following the Eurozone crisis, while Muslim majority nations to Turkey’s east have experienced internal problems that ultimately led to the Arab Spring at the end of the 2000s. It is within this precarious, uncomfortable and deeply unsettling reality that Turkey has soldiered on, often without the help of the EU. Therefore, what makes it increasingly difficult for Turkey to enter into the union is a deeply held Islamophobia within the EU. Given the lack of political will in general and the populist sentiments driving waves of anti-Muslim attacks, rhetoric and practices that engulf parts of Western and middle Europe in particular in recent periods, it is no surprise that Turkey demonstrates a certain disregard of the EU project.

After the failed coup of July 2016, talk of reintroducing the death penalty reflects how the language of the AKP and President Erdoğan has become more emboldened and aggressive. In part, this ensures loyalty among a die-hard following of half of the population. But it also creates deep divisions among the rest of society, with the ongoing issues surrounding the Kurdish question, the general situation of minorities such as Alevis, Jews, Roma and various Christian groups, as well as hyper nationalism driven by majoritarian conservatism. Precariousness has become the norm. In the last two years, a spate of terrorist attacks by leftists, Islamists and Kurdish militia have left the country reeling. With the failed coup still remembered as an incident that traumatised a nation, the AKP is leading Turkey down a narrow alley, potentially isolating itself in the region, especially as it attempts to improve relations with other prominent Sunni neighbours while regarding the EU as a hopeless project.

For the deepest of sceptics, Turkey could never comply with the benchmarks for entry, but these standards shift as do the parameters of the political process. There are those who wish to keep the EU as a club of Christian nations, regarding Turkey’s entry as a fundamental blight on the very identity of the Union. In order for the EU to move forward from its inward looking, imbalanced and disproportionate focus on the older partners, embracing Turkey would alter the political and cultural outlook of the entire bloc.

For the Muslim world, Turkey’s entry into the EU would move aside the powerfully held notion that the EU can never include a Muslim majority nation. It would allow the entry of a technically skilled, young workforce into the labour markets of the EU. It would improve Muslim-Christian, East-West relations with a single move, one that could have significant ramifications for the entire world. The unique political, social and cultural character of Turkey, inherited from its transformation from an Islamic caliphate into a republic, means that the symbolism associated with Turkey’s entry into the EU would have far greater effect in the long-term.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Tahir Abbas – LSE
Tahir Abbas, PhD FRSA, is a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. From 2010-2016, he lived and worked in Istanbul as a professor of sociology, during which time he was a visiting scholar at New York University, Leiden University, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the International Islamic University in Islamabad and the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. His most recent book is, Contemporary Turkey in Conflict: Ethnicity, Islam and Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

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