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.
Credit: MacPepper (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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.
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).
If the EU takes in Turkey it will be condoning human rights abuses and abuses of power. The world watched as a coup was claimed by Erdogan. A Coup is a military operation. Then why did several opportunities where Erdogan was exposed not get utilized? The coup thus exposed a plot to grab power. Only those who do not analyze information coming out of Turkey are unaware of this.
What are you on about … What an idiotic thing to allege. The Coupe attempt and its reality is not in question. What is in question is what and who was behind this attempt. A serious concern is that the EU and member states remains extremely silent, went on to protect the coupe members. after all the derogatory and insultive remarks I for one will advocate the move East. On balance, without question the EU accepted A war torn island “Cyprus” into the union breaching its own rules, then accepted Bulgaria and Romania ingot eh Union neither of which are economically or socially better than Turkey.. Perhaps you ought to keep reading and diversifying your information source.
Only Islamists try to push turkey in Europe so they can get a foothold on fortress Europe
There was a reason Europeans shed a ton of blood to rid the continent of the sharia scourge No European in their right mind will let the Turks in from the back door
Mr. Abbas has not understood why EU public opinion is opposed to the entry of Turkey. The bottom line is that most EU citizens do not consider that Turkey is a European country. And therefore it can’t become an EU member. For many European citizens, entry of Turkey would mean that the European Union would start to morph into something else. The word ‘European’ would need to be dropped. There is zero public support for that. Ask yourself whether European citizens would easily accept a membership application from Japan. The answer is no, and it has nothing to do with human rights, economics or islamophobia. BTW, the EU will probably accept two countries with dominant Muslim majorities in the medium term: Albania and Kosovo.
This is also the position I have personally. I have travelled twice to Turkey. The welcome was always excellent. I am all in favour of good relations with Turkey. I am fine with the idea of visa-free travel. But I am totally opposed to Turkish membership of the EU.
An islamic country in Europe would mean huge problems, nothing else.
Turkey is NOT an Islamic country.. The civil law, constitution, political system are all same with any other countries in Europe.. Maybe even more modern.. It’s the FIRST country in Europe for the voting rights of women and else.. It’s a democratic, secular state which is a part of West.. That’s the reason why Erdogan does not match with Turkey and caused a political chaos.. If Turkey would be an Islamic country, a profile like Erdogan would easily match.. He’s a disaster and has nothing compatible with Turkish values..
“Turkey is NOT an Islamic country.” ?
No longer true. Erdogan may not – in your opinion – “match with Turkey”. But he matches well with the Turkish electorate, who continue to vote majoritarily for him. And he has turned Turkey back into an Islamic country.
To go back to the beginning of the article [which is pure Ankara propaganda]: “Turkey’s accession to the EU is a perennial question.”.
No longer That idea is now definitively dead.
PS: Turkish constitution declares that Turkey has NO official religion..
Mr Abbas minimises the importance of religion, conflating it with “inward looking, imbalanced and disproportionate” views; presumably to be corrected by more enlightened education of the European masses. But it is fundamental.
One of the foundations of Christianity is the separation between Church and State: “Whose name and inscription is upon this coin? Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s; and unto God, that which is God’s”. The Church regulates a person’s spiritual life; the State, their temporal one.
No such distinction exists in Islam. Every devout Muslim is bound to follow Shari’a Law, as laid down in the Koran and the Hadith. That law regulates all civil and criminal issues: crime and punishment, property and inheritance, finance, banking and trade, taxes, marriage and children, dress and public behaviour, relations between men and women, apostasy, etc., etc..
That code is completely incompatible with any European system of law. So it is impossible for a person to be at the same time a devout Muslim and a good European citizen.
Like Francois above, I have travelled widely and repeatedly throughout Turkey. And by-and-large, I have liked those I met. But I have never been under the illusion that I was in a European country.