Europe’s anomaly

Bridging the gap between East and West, Islamist Turkey is no closer to EU integration

Lately, Arabs appear to have rediscovered Turkey, which they had previously tended to depict as something gruesome in its Ottoman personification. This shallow rediscovery — shallow for being pegged to Arab fears, mainly of Iran and Israel — comes amid more interesting dynamics related to Europe and the reversal of European integration.

In 2005, the European Union began membership talks with Turkey. As the EU was effectively delaying Turkish membership, this was less than Ankara had expected, after years of introducing reforms into its economic, political, and judicial systems to pave the way toward full integration. By then the tide was turning in Europe and its continuing difficulties in absorbing Muslim immigrants proved a major obstacle, as did the EU’s rapid expansion to 27 states by 2007. That year, Nicolas Sarkozy also happened to be elected president of France. Sarkozy had never hidden his hostility to full Turkish membership in Europe, a serious problem for the Turks given France’s influential role in the EU’s decision-making apparatus.

It is ironic that Greece has further undermined the aspirations of its old rival, Turkey. The Greek financial crisis and the initially sluggish, scattershot European response to it provoked a dual problem for the EU: it placed a big question mark over the viability of the dominant symbol of unification, the euro, and it cast doubt on the European enterprise in general. Today, Europe is awash in doubt, making the question of Turkish integration even trickier than before. However, this irony has hidden another. Turkey’s economy weathered well during this downturn, and according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is expected to grow by 7 percent this year, albeit after contracting by 5.6 percent in 2009. The conditions for European integration, among them civilian domination of the armed forces, have also helped the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) push the Turkish military onto the defensive.

Yet this has come at a price: AKP is an Islamist party (or, as some say, a post-Islamist one), and has not been shy about attempting to advance Islamic values against the state secularism defended by the military.  The principles behind European economic and political integration were never supposed to be so contradictory. In the mind of Europe’s ideologues, economic integration and agreement over basic shared values by member states — open economies, rule of law, respect for human rights, secularism, and the like — were always supposed to reflect the liberal values of the EU’s core founders.

Turkey has muddied the waters, especially lately. Reforms have brought the country closer to the European ideal, and the AKP has defended open markets. The ruling party’s policy of “zero problems with the neighbors” has also been closely in line with the EU’s preference for nations to settle their differences peacefully.  However, Turkey has not fit the mold as snugly as the EU would like. While the AKP has sought compromise with Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdish problem has not gone away, nor have its human rights implications. Turkish secularism has never been mistreated as it is today, by a ruling party with roots in the conservative region of Anatolia. And the EU could not have been happy with the government’s recent stance over Gaza, which brought it into confrontation with Israel and saw the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declaring that Hamas was not a terrorist group, in opposition to the official EU position.

 Some might argue that Turkey’s opening to the Arab world, and therefore its adoption of Arab political positions at odds with the EU consensus, has been a result of the slowdown in integration talks with Europe. That was the position of the United States defense secretary, Robert Gates, in June. But there must be more to it than that. In the same way that the EU has faltered as an idea lately, nothing in the European contract ever guaranteed that a complex state like Turkey would invariably take positions more appealing to the Western mainstream. Indeed, Turkey was always viewed as useful by the EU precisely because it had the cultural baggage to be a bridge to the Arabs.

Expect Turkey to play more on the contradictions between its European and its Middle Eastern and Islamic personalities in the foreseeable future. But don’t wait for Turkey to be more European than the Europeans. Europe hardly seems to know itself these days.

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