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Turkey and the EU’s Self-Righteousness

Europe tends to belittle the vitality of the political debate inside Turkey and the creativity of its civil society.

Credit: Istimages


  • The idea that Turkey was ditched because it was not democratic or democratizing is not true.
  • What happens if Turkey gets more authoritarian? The question belittles the vitality of the Turkish political debate.
  • June's election results showed that there is vitality in Turkish democracy, which is significant.
  • The challenge is to garner support against a populist conservative movement that the AKP represents.

A current question often raised in the European debate is this: What will happen if Turkey becomes more authoritarian? The background of the question is usually to push Turkey further onto the European sidelines. It also belittles the vitality of the political debate inside Turkey and the vitality and creativity of its civil society.

To make my point, let me ask what will happen to Hungary, an existing EU and NATO member, if it goes more authoritarian than it already has?

In the interest of brevity, let’s not kid ourselves about double standards: Portugal was a founding member of NATO — and that was under the dictator Salazar. So please forget about Greece or Turkey being ready or not being ready to join NATO in 1952 as democratic countries.

When France decided in 2005 — and much more aggressively after 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy became President – to ditch Turkey and stop it on its route to EU membership, it came on the heels of the referendum on the European Constitution.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Angela Merkel came to power and that country’s position changed as well.

European cynicism

Mind you, those years were not a time when Turkish democracy was being questioned. Between 2002 and 2007/08, if anything, Turkish democracy was improving by leaps and bounds.

The idea often presented in the European debate — that Turkey was ditched because it was not sufficiently democratic or democratizing — is not true.

In fact, as if to add insult to injury, when things started to go wrong in Turkey between 2009 and 2011, the EU Commission wrote the lamest – repeat: lamest! – annual reports on the country’s progress.

Looking at the facts, one really has to question Europe’s strategic sense. Consider the implication of that message: “It’s better for Turkey not to be democratic, so we Europeans won’t have to deal with it.”

No doubt, that is a perfectly understandable position. But I don’t find it legitimate. Indeed, can there be a more cynical position for Europe to have?

Regarding what can be done in Turkish civil society, my appeal is not to pay too much attention to the state level. In fact, there were (and are) several good organizations in Turkey – and people in academia as well – that found themselves left without much help from our European counterparts.

I am unsure whether this European passivity reflected an intention not to rock the boat – and just conduct business as usual with Turkey’s new AKP-related elites. But Europe was definitely passive.

After Gezi Park

Take the Gezi Park events: Gezi is part of a worldwide phenomenon. In Spain, the phenomenon created Podemos. Elsewhere, it created other political movements.

One of the reasons why Turkey saw fair elections for the national parliament this past June is the so-called Vote & Beyond organization, which was a direct outcome of the Gezi Park protests.

Consider the reasons for the HDP’s success in those elections, which was a decisive factor in the overall outcome. That, too, was a function of its appropriation of the Gezi Park spirit.

The Kurds happen to be the most conservative segment of the Turkish population. The HDP is their party. Yet, the HDP fielded gay candidates and fringe-left candidates. The party leaders used a language that spoke to an inspired and aspirational 21st century Turkey as a whole.

Whether this strategy will ultimately succeed or not – whatever happens to that emerging coalition – I do not know.

However, the election results, while inconclusive for forming a government, showed that there is vitality in Turkish democracy, which is not insignificant. That, I think, is the challenge for European countries, their governments and civil societies.

They have to figure out, in a more imaginative way, the kind of channels they need to open up to different segments of the Turkish society.

The overarching challenge is to garner support against a rather powerful state apparatus and a very populist conservative movement that the AKP represents.

That would be the only way to maintain whatever liberal aspects we have managed to put in our democratic system in Turkey.

Editor’s note: This essay reflects remarks the author delivered at the annual foreign policy conference of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin on June 19, 2015.

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About Soli Ozel

Soli Özel is a professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and a columnist at Habertürk daily newspaper.

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