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Turkey, EU, and radical Islam: The country confronts its past and future

Turkey and the European Union: an uncertain roadmap ahead Photograph: (WION)

WION Turkey Aug 29, 2016, 07.31 AM (IST) Prabirendra Chatterjee

Dubbed as the greatest Turkish novel of the twentieth century, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's ‘The Time Regulation Institute’ (1962) portrays a fictional, and almost surreal, organisation named ‘The Time regulation institute’; the essential job of the organization was to change all the clocks in Turkey to Western time. This satirical novel poignantly captures the ambitions of a newly liberated country, which had been forced to comply with the European culture even when that led to a direct confrontation between the past and the future. 

Perhaps the biggest shock for modern Turkey came on the very first day of 1929 when the law on the adoption and implementation of Turkish alphabet was passed. The short term repercussions were almost unfathomable. As Ruchir Sharma has succinctly put in his book ‘Breakout nations’, "Ataturk scrapped the Arabic alphabet for Latin Letters in 1929, rendering 99 percent of the population functionally illiterate overnight, in the name of catapulting them into the European mainstream.’’ However, the actual tragedy lies somewhere else. 

Even after pushing every possible boundary, the so-called European standard was always out of reach for this newly secular nation. Kemal Ataturk initially had a vision of a modern country, which would have potentials to compete with its European counterparts and possibly erase the  overwhelming memories of the complete defeat of the Ottoman empire. Soon he realised that cooperation, instead of competition, is the key to success. 

In later years, after the formation of European Union, the notion of cooperation became the rule, and not a wish, of the day. The problem is, for the most part of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this cooperation was largely a one-way affair.

The ‘Schengen agreement’ on the creation of open borders without passport control was signed in 1985. In 1986, the ‘Single European act’ formalising the terms of the political cooperation among the European territories came into effect. As a result, Europeanisation of Turkey’s politics mostly took place after 1986. This is in spite of the fact that the secular Kemalists and the ‘religion free’ army ruled the country since the Turkish war of independence. 

Soon after Turkey put its candidacy for the membership of European Council (EC) in 1987, the European leadership argued that Turkey’s democracy was not matured enough to be considered as a candidate state for EC. After many a rebuff, Turkey started reforming its constitution and the major amendments were incorporated in 1995. Eventually, in 1999, the European council recognised Turkey’s candidate status. 

Of course, constitutional reforms were not enough and Turkey was then politely asked to fix its economy. The secular coalition, which ruled Turkey since 1997 and had  somewhat successfully reformed the constitution, however, did not have any remedy for the faltering Turkish economy. At the end of 2001, Turkey’s GDP fell by 7.4 per cent, investors withdrew more than $70 billion worth of capital and inflation touched a  sky-high, almost irrational, 70 per cent mark.

Following this economic crisis, some structural reform measures that were long desired got implemented. Agricultural associations received their autonomy, low-interest loans were offered, social security infrastructure and the private pension funds were privatised and restructured. By 2004, inflation had come down to a remarkable 7 per cent. Interest rates too fell dramatically and thus boosted economic growth. 

The process of economic liberalisation firmly established Turkey’s place in the cohort of ‘breakout nations’. These were the nations with tremendous potentials who aspired to be the future economic superpowers. The early success of Turkish economy also helped the nation to remain insulated during and immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis. A series of additional legal reforms, which included the permanent abolishment of the death penalty and shortening of pre-trial detention period, further bolstered Turkey’s claim for the European Union (EU) membership.

Or did it actually?

Almost since the time when Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed power, a substantial number of French and German politicians urged EU to offer Turkey a ‘privileged partnership’ status instead of a permanent membership. Perhaps most vocal among them was the leader of the German Christian Democrats party, Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, in 2005 Merkel and several other European political leaders vociferously argued against Turkey’s accession to EU, citing the inefficient economic and political system of the country as being the main impediment. 

These arguments were somewhat tautological in nature as the Lisbon treaty, which explains the objectives of the EU,  states clearly that EU would help its member countries to achieve sustainable development based on economic growth. The potential member countries certainly need to fulfill some prerequisites, but asking for credentials over and beyond those requirements reek of preconceived  bias.

For the sake of fairness, though, let’s compare Turkey's economic credentials with other new member states of the EU. According to 2013 world economic outlook data, provided by the International Monetary Fund, Poland’s annual GDP growth rate was 1.3 per cent and the purchasing power parity adjusted (PPP) GDP was $896 billion. Turkey, by contrast, had a GDP growth rate of nearly 4 per cent, and exceeded Poland’s PPP adjusted GDP by almost $600 billion. Also, even when Turkey's population size is twice that of Poland, the latter, in terms of GDP per capita, only marginally outperformed Turkey. 

And still, the European union went gaga over Poland’s success story.  

In 2007, Turkey’s neighbouring country Bulgaria received the coveted membership. While Turkey’s GDP hovered around trillions of dollars, Bulgaria merely produced a hundred billion dollars worth of output. Despite having one tenth of Turkey’s population, Bulgaria has 5 per cent more people who live below the poverty line compared to Turkey. There is an abundance of such examples; in terms of most of the major economic indicators, Turkey would perhaps beat almost every new member state of the EU, acceded after the new millennium.

The real reasons behind this unfair treatment can be found elsewhere. Shortly before assuming the papal office, Pope Benedict XVI said that the negotiations between EU and Turkey had an anti-historical goal; Turkey’s Islamic roots had placed the country in direct contrast to the Europe. In spite of the fact that Turkey has remained a secular nation for almost nine decades, religious dogmatism and other medieval biases overshadowed the good senses of many European leaders. 

As Turkey’s chances of being accepted in the EU have dwindled over the time, overt nationalistic discourses have become the primary survival technique for most of the Turkish political parties. For instance, the ruling party has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Turkey wants to be less European and no more. Turkey’s ‘look east’ policy could have been the beginning of the end of a hypothetical relationship, but that never happened.

The civil war in Syria and the recent financial meltdown of Europe have changed every possible equation. Under the circumstance, Turkey's relationship with the EU is severely strained. Worse still, the country is suffering through grave political conflicts, which are bound to leave lasting impression on the social and economic fabric of the nation that is torn between ideas of secularism and an overt sense of nationalism


Prabirendra Chatterjee

The writer is an assistant professor at School of Management, Sabanci University. He lives in Istanbul and closely follows international politics in general and Turkish politics in particular.

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