For a government minister to make statements endangering his own portfolio is not a common occurrence. For this reason, it was noteworthy that Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bagis stated that Turkey is likely never to become a member of the European Union but could one day enter into a Norwegian-type relationship with the union.
If you ask Bagis, who spoke last week at a conference at Yalta, Ukraine, there is only one reason complicating Turkey’s EU membership: the Islamophobia and prejudice that were exposed most recently at the voting for the 2020 Olympics venue.
It would, of course, be naive to say that prejudices do not exist in Europe. It is equally difficult to deny that these prejudices are nourished by Islamophobia, which has replaced anti-Semitism in today’s world. But is this unpleasant phenomenon enough to validate Bagis’ remarks?
There is no doubt that Turkey has taken great economic strides over the last 10 years. It has also taken crucial steps to distance the Turkish military, which had staged four coups in the past, from politics, thus advancing democracy. One has to also look at the steps taken to solve the Kurdish question that has been a bleeding wound for Turkey.
It is true that all of this was achieved during the reign of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). But are these the only two steps required for Turkey to march to the "advanced democracy" that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan so often mentions? Even if members of the government reject such criticism, Turkey still has issues with "standard democracy," let alone "advanced democracy.”
According to the 2013 Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders, which defines Turkey as the “biggest prison in the world for journalists,” Turkey occupies 154th place in the list of countries ranked by journalistic freedom, just ahead of Iraq and Gambia. In the same index, the Norway that Bagis compared with Turkey ranks third.
Putting world-renowned pianist Fazil Say on trial on charges of insulting Persian thinker Omar Khayyam in a tweet and denigrating Islam (charges which he denies) is enough to illustrate the democratic deficit in Turkey. Today there is a prime minister in Turkey who defends limiting freedom of expression. But if there are limits on freedom of expression, this also means there are limits on the democracy that brought him to power.
In addition to all this, Turkey today is governed with an election threshold of 10%, a rate unthinkable in any EU member state. The incompatibility of this threshold with advanced democracy is obvious. Nor has Turkey eradicated police brutality and torture. Rather than actively prosecuting those who commit these crimes, Erdogan has declared the police that used extreme brutality against citizens demonstrating during the Gezi Park events to be “heroes.”
As for Bagis’ remarks concerning the Olympics, was "anti-Islamism” the only reason the International Olympics Committee (IOC) delegates from all corners of the world preferred Tokyo over Istanbul?
Didn’t the extreme police action against the students of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara the same night of the voting, while memories of the Gezi events were still fresh, or the fact that Turkey was busy taking measures against a possible chemical or terrorist attack from Syria, influence IOC members?
Also, didn’t the detection of doping in numerous Turkish athletes in the weeks leading up to the polling affect the IOC vote? All these are issues the Erdogan government doesn’t like to discuss, because they disrupt the impression it wants to create with its loyal Islamic base.
But isn’t ignoring all these questions and issues and pointing to European racism as the sole barrier to Turkey’s EU membership a sign of insincerity? Today in Europe, despite everything, there are governments, parties and forces that support the idea of Turkey’s EU membership because of the "big picture" and their forward-looking strategies.
In short, the situation is not black and white enough to substantiate the remarks of Bagis. Neither is the EU perspective something Turkey can easily abandon and say, "I changed my mind, I am not playing." Ankara’s long-term salvation still lies with this perspective. But while saying so, we are not insisting that Turkey has to become an EU member.
Neither is it not possible to ignore as irrelevant factors of cultural differences to which not only the European Union but Turkey, too, is having problems adjusting. Then there are Turkey’s physical dimensions to contend with. In other words, as Bagis said, perhaps Turkey will never become an EU member.
According the latest opinion polls, European racism and the massive EU economic crisis have tainted the union’s desirability in the eyes of Turks. Many Turks today say, "Look at Greece and Spain. What are we to gain by becoming a member?"
Although for the citizen in the street, the union is essentially about jobs, the European Union’s importance to Turkey was never confined to that. Turkey, over the past 10 years, has proven how it could improve its economy by energizing its own internal potential and by relying on variety of resources outside the European Union.
The union’s importance for Turkey, as President Abdullah Gul often says, lies in values such as advanced democracy, human and minority rights and freedom of thought. If Turkey is one day going to achieve Norway’s status on its own steam, as Bagis claims, then it won’t need the European Union.
On that happy day, Turkey, like Norway, will have the most advanced democracy and economy in addition to its windows on three continents, and the union could well be a hindrance. But Bagis has yet to tell us how Turkey will catch up with Norwegian standards without an engine like the European Union, not in three or four years but in the next 25.
On the other hand, it is not possible to ignore the importance of the EU perspective for Turkey’s standing and power in the Middle East. As Barin Kayaoglu wrote for Al-Monitor on Sept. 23, “Turkey’s ability to project power in the Middle East is intimately connected with its prospective EU membership. Without that European outlook, Turkey is a weaker player in the Middle East.”
We can add to Kayaoglu’s words: The “European perspective” is more important than Turkey’s EU membership. The core of this perspective is democracy, human rights and freedom of thought. As the AKP likes to point out, in the context of racism and Islamophobia, even Europe fails sometimes in this respect.
But these issues don’t mean Turkey has reached Europe’s current levels. Europe, even with its deficiencies, is years ahead of Turkey. As for the Middle East, it is decades and in some cases, centuries behind these standards.
The hope in the region is not for Turkey to become an EU member one day, but for it to catch up with the European Union’s advanced standards. In other words, a Turkey accepted as EU member under Bagis’ conditions without attaining those standards will not serve the aspirations of those striving for democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
Bagis has to tell us how Turkey is going to achieve Norwegian standards without the locomotive power of the European Union. If he believes Turkey has already attained those standards, he is living in a dream world.
Semih Idiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.
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