In the aftermath of the bombings, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, “Far from hurting Turkey’s application to join the European Union it will increase the determination of all of us to see Turkey as a full member of the European Union.”
Amidst the tragedy, Straw’s words were music to the ears for many Turks, who have long cherished the dream of becoming members of the European club.
After the liberal pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) took office in November 2002, that dream appears to have come much closer to reality.
“Since then,” says Mevlut Cavusoglu, AKP parliamentarian and deputy leader of the party’s foreign relations committee, “we have seen some enormous progress with Turkey’s move towards EU membership – enough even to surprise Europe.”
On 5 November the European Commission progress report on Turkey was released, which gave the country top marks for a programme of reforms aimed at bringing it into line with EU norms.
The resolution of the Cyprus issue
These included rolling back the influence of the powerful military, while also allowing wider freedom of expression for ethnic minorities – such as the Kurds.
Many changes were also made to criminal procedures, with legislation against torture.
Previously, other EU harmonisation packages had limited the powers of the State Security Courts, which had long been used to stifle dissent via a set of laws curbing free speech and association.
“The steps that have been taken to try and bring the country’s laws into line with those of the EU have been revolutionary steps for Turkey,” says Mehmet Ocaktan, a columnist for the daily Yeni Safak and expert on EU affairs.
“A year ago, it would have been impossible to even think of such changes taking place.”
Turkey has long wanted membership of the EU, with its campaign to gain entrance stretching back to the earliest days of the Union itself. It first applied to join the Union’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, in 1959.
The country has also long failed to convince EU states that it is deserving of a place. Military coups, economic crises and instability through much of the 1970s and 1980s were perhaps partly to blame for this.
But since the late 1990s, Turkey’s campaign for EU membership has gained ground.
Last December, the EU heads of state decided that if by December 2004, the country had made satisfactory progress with reform, it would be given a date to start the accession process.
When this process was complete, Turkey would become part of the EU but it clearly has much to do before then.
While it is being praised for its “great determination”, the European Commission also said that implementation of the reforms was “slow and uneven”.
Erdogan had doubts over the
“The subjects the EU highlighted in the report for particular attention,” says Ocaktan, “were torture, inadequacies with freedom of speech, a lack of progress in dealing with the grievances of the country’s religious minorities and a lack of progress with broadcasting in the Kurdish language.”
The other area of concern is foreign policy, particularly the focus on Cyprus.
“The Cyprus subject is not directly a criteria,” says Cavusoglu – yet it has certainly become a major problem. The island is set to join the EU next May, with or without a settlement to its 29-year de facto division.
The EU wants to see the problem solved as quickly as possible, as many are fearful that it may torpedo Turkey’s chances completely, if it attempts to join the EU while still being technically in occupation of another EU member’s territory.
As for the more direct criticisms, the Turkish government did eventually accept them, with Foreign Minister Abd Allah Gul describing the report as “fair and objective”.
However, a few days before Gul’s comments, Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan had reacted somewhat differently by describing a leaked version of the report as “biased against Turkey”.
In this, he was perhaps venting a more widespread feeling among ordinary Turks – that whatever reforms the country undertakes, and however well they are implemented, when push comes to shove, the Europeans do not really want them. The reason is widely thought to be that 99% of Turks are Muslim.
“There are some people who express this sort of approach in Europe,” says Ocaktan. “We think they don’t represent the majority.”
But even if not, they are represented by some powerful figures.
Valerie Giscard D’Estang, the former French president who was in charge of writing the new EU constitution in 2002 said that Turkey was simply “not part of Europe”.
“The EU is not a religious club, other countries with different religions and cultures can be a part of it”
Others, such as Germany’s Christian Democrats, favour an associate member status for Turkey, but nothing more. Meanwhile, debate over the inclusion of a reference to Europe’s “Christian” heritage in the constitution has won support from Italy to Ireland.
“This can’t be allowed,” says Cavusoglu. “As the EU is not a religious club, other countries with different religions and cultures can be a part of it. Anything else would be a double standard.”
“If the EU is an organisation without a religious axis,” adds Ocaktan, “Islam cannot be an obstacle to entry. However, if the opposite is true, then the EU’s claim to be a cultural mosaic is dead. In this way, Turkey’s EU entry would be a good example for the EU itself.”
And this is the point now being stressed by those EU countries explicitly in favour of Turkey’s membership, particularly after the recent bombings in Istanbul.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily after the 20 November blasts said, “This is why Turkey’s becoming an EU member is important.”
He then added, “The attacks showed the necessity of closer cooperation with Turkey and of opening accession talks.”
Yet, despite these expressions of support, doubts remain over the future.
“At the end of the day, even if Turkey makes all the political and economic reforms necessary, will the EU be able to accept us into its cultural geography?” asks Ocaktan.
“In a way, the most crucial part of Turkey’s EU adventure is hidden in the answer to that question. The answer will be important for Turkey, but it will also be tremendously important for the EU.”