Sarkozy, secularism and Turkey’s European future

Sarkozy, secularism and Turkey’s European future

Bulletin article
Katinka Barysch
01 June 2007

Can things get worse for Turkey? The presidential election is stalled; the army threatens to intervene; millions are protesting in the streets; EU negotiations remain partly suspended; terrorism in the South-East could prompt military forays into northern Iraq; and the new French president wants to see Turkey in a Mediterranean Union but not in the EU.
But some perspective is needed. The current turmoil may well be the vital test of Turkish democracy that the EU has long been asking for. If Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces down the generals now, future coups will become almost impossible. And if reforms were speeded up after the early parliamentary election, President Sarkozy would find it hard to argue in favour of ending Turkey’s accession process.

Turkey’s trouble started in April, when Erdogan nominated his foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, to become the next president. Following the first round of voting in parliament, the army threatened to intervene. The generals, backed by Turkey’s Kemalist establishment, say that the president must be the guardian of the secular order. For them, Gül, a moderate Islamist whose wife wears the headscarf, did not fit the bill. Perhaps to defuse the threat of a military coup, the constitutional court then cancelled the first-round vote, arguing that it lacked the necessary quorum. Erdogan’s government has called early parliamentary elections for July. And it has pushed through constitutional changes that – if adopted – would allow the people to elect future presidents directly.

While Turkey’s drama unfolded, the EU remained largely silent – as it should. The debates and demonstrations are mainly about the mix of religion and politics, which is not something that the EU has much to say about. Individual EU countries would offer rather different answers. France would probably have a problem with a headscarf-wearing presidential spouse. The UK might well be more relaxed about it. What all Europeans agree on, however, is that in a democracy the army cannot have the last say in politics. During past military coups, the Turkish generals could always argue that their defence of secularism was in fact a way of defending democracy. Now this argument looks less compelling. The AKP has respected democratic rules. It has backed down when its religiously inspired proposals, such as the criminalisation of adultery, ran into widespread opposition. The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, has rightly warned the generals to respect the rules of democracy even if the outcome is not to their liking.

Turks took scant notice of Rehn’s statements, and those of other EU politicians. Since the issues at stake concern domestic politics, any lasting solution has to be found by the Turkish people themselves. In fact, the turmoil could be a sign that Turkish democracy is maturing: Turkey may be undergoing a necessary – though stressful – convulsion on the way to a more sustainable system. It may be dawning on the army that in a ‘well-functioning democracy’ (as required by the EU’s entry criteria) it can no longer be the ultimate arbiter of who runs the country. If Turkey gets through the current crisis with its democratic credentials intact, it will have taken another important step towards convincing its critics that it is becoming a mainstream European country.

What happens after the July parliamentary election will be crucial. Until recently, another AKP government looked like the country’s best hope. Since 2002, the AKP has made more headway with reforms and EU preparations than generations of squabbling coalition governments before it. Now, however, an overbearing AKP government could prolong the stand-off with the secularists. An AKP-led coalition government might be better for political stability, though it could slow the reform process.

That would be a shame, at a time when the accession process is just starting in earnest. At the end of 2006, the EU decided to suspend negotiations in eight areas, until Turkey had opened its ports and airports to ships and planes from Cyprus. But this decision forced the Cypriots to lift their wider blockage of the remaining 27 ‘chapters’ of the acquis. Now Turkey hopes to make tangible progress in four chapters by the summer. Moreover, the Erdogan government in April released a 400-page plan to unilaterally adopt a broad range of EU laws by 2013. This shows that progress remains possible, even if signals from the EU are mixed or even discouraging.

And discouraging they may well be if Sarkozy – whose opposition to Turkish membership appears heart-felt – gets his way. Some fear that France could use its EU veto to block the opening and closing of negotiating chapters, like Cyprus has done in the past. But this would upset those in the EU who want accession to continue, such as the Nordics, Spain, the UK, the Commission and also Germany’s Angela Merkel. She has always promised to stick to the EU’s pledge to let Turkey in, if and when it fulfils all the necessary criteria. Merkel, Barroso, and politicians from other EU countries (as well as the US) will probably remind Sarkozy that the accession process would help Turkey to become more stable and prosperous, which would be good for Europe as a whole. Since Sarkozy’s other European plans, such as more protectionist trade policies, are controversial, he may be careful not to pick another fight over Turkey. Ankara should also be encouraged by the fact that Sarkozy picked Bernard Kouchner – a man who openly favours Turkish membership – as his foreign minister.

The current crisis has added an extra degree of realism and caution to the often overly emotional debate about Turkey’s accession. This is good. Now Turkey needs to concentrate on resolving disagreements about the presidency while respecting democratic rules. The early parliamentary election could be a plus, if the new government got on with reforms soon afterwards. In this case, the EU should not be shy to praise Turkey in its annual progress report in the autumn. And it should redouble its efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue so that it can lift the part-suspension of the talks.

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