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EU-Turkish Engagement: A must for stability of the region

Paper No. 1127                                                                   28/09/2004

by K. Gajendra Singh

In an emergency session on Sunday, 26 September, the Turkish Parliament approved a revised penal code without the controversial clause criminalizing adultery, thus clearing the way for the Europe Union (EU) summit in December to give Turkey a date to begin accession negotiations. The adultery clause led to an acrimonious debate between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European leaders and had threatened Turkey’s chances of gating the date.

The new penal code further expands freedom of expression, grants greater individual freedoms and increases penalties for torture and abuse of human rights .It also introduces life terms for perpetrators of "honor killings," jail terms for the sexual molestation of children, the trafficking of human organs and the pollution of the environment. But women's groups have criticised several amendments on grounds that they are still discriminatory. The new law amends Turkey's 78-year-old penal code. Kemal Ataturk had replaced Islamic laws with Swiss Civil Code and Italy’s Penal Code in 1926. He also gave women the vote earlier than many got it in Europe.

After assurances in Brussels last week by Erdogan to EU leaders, Günter Verheugen, the EU' s enlargement commissioner said that the European Commission intended giving Turkey the go-ahead for formal talks for entry, after publication of its progress report on October 6. Verheugen praised Turkey's reform efforts and said, "no remaining outstanding obstacles remained on the table". He was confident that following additional checks by commission officials, there was no basis for accusing Turkey of "systematic torture".

Before the December summit the EU had wanted Turkey to legislate a new penal code, to satisfy EU standards on human rights. The row over a the clause criminalising adultery, inserted into the draft bill under pressure from conservative members of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), has now been dropped.  Women's groups in Turkey and elsewhere warned that the adultery law would be used almost entirely against wives.

Europeans have forgotten their past. Adultery was a crime in almost every European country until very recently. Ireland abolished such a law in 1981, France in 1975 and Italy in 1969. In America, 23 states still have such laws on their books. In any case the adultery law would have become null and void since the European courts would have ruled against it. The Turkish Parliament passed 218 laws that reform the penal code in accordance with the EU's criteria, which is equal to what most previous candidates had for EU membership.

Erdogan had threatened earlier this month to drop the whole penal code package to calm the more conservative and devout factions of the ruling AKP, which has Islamic roots, and who have been disappointed by the party's failure to lift the ban on headscarves in official places. The decision was partly a result of rivalry with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gull, who is more liberal in outlook.

European Commission spokesman Flori had said that a new penal code was vital if Ankara was to meet the criteria agreed to in Copenhagen in 1992 and added that making adultery a criminal offense would send the wrong signal over Turkey's European credentials. "The new penal code in Turkey is of utmost importance in Turkey's political reform process," he added.

A respected Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand said ‘The AKP is a political party that has done the most concerning reforms needed for EU membership. This party has put on an amazing performance and has made Turkey getting a date a reality’. This is true although previous regimes too did their best.

Turkey’s 40 year quest for European identity;

Turkey applied in 1959 to become an associate member of the European Economic Community, as the EU was then known. In 1970, Turkey signed an agreement for eventual full membership of the European Community (EC). In 1978-79, the EC asked Turkey to apply for membership along with Greece. Turkey declined, and perhaps missed the best chance it ever had. Under Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, Turkey applied for full membership, and was registered in 1987. In 1989, the EC accepted the eligibility but deferred assessment of the application. On January 1, 1996, a Customs Union with the EU came into force. But in December 1997, the EU refused candidate status. Turkey was angry, as a result leftists and fascist parties won by big margins in the 1999 elections. So in December 1999, Ankara was granted candidate status.

To strengthen its case for the vital 2002 Copenhagen summit, the Turkish parliament earlier passed sweeping constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the death penalty and the ban on the use of the Kurdish language, to meet some of the EU's human rights criteria. On December 11, the Turkish parliament overwhelmingly approved anther package of human rights reforms, including sanctions against torture. But the December Copenhagen summit declined to give a date to commence accession negotiations. While angry and disappointed AKP leadership vowed to continue its efforts.

Since coming to power in end 2002, the AKP government has legislated many more reform packages, including disbanding military courts and reduced the role of the military in politics, as required by the Copenhagen criteria. The current package is ninth .The military's hold over the National Security Council (NSC), composed of top military and political leaders was often used by the army brass to impose its will on the government, was reduced. The Council became strictly an advisory body, with no executive powers and a civilian now heads its secretariat than a general. Further, greater parliamentary scrutiny of military expenses was introduced. The armed forces consider themselves the guardians of the secular republic and custodians of the legacy of Kemal Ataturk, who forged the Turkish nation in 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire.

In Brussels Erdogan had assured the EU leaders,"We are implementing all our reforms very seriously ... We are very resolute on this."  He saw no reason why Turkey should not receive a "yes" to start membership discussions. He said that over the next three months Turkey would make all efforts to ensure approval at the December 17th EU Summit. When questioned on cultural and religious differences between Turkey and Europe, Erdogan said that the EU was based on "unity in multiculturalism". "In the future it will be the meeting point of cultures and civilizations," he added. European Parliament (EP) President Joseph Borrell helped out, "The! EU is not a Christian club and should never be considered as such."

It is extremely unlikely that a "positive" progress report on Turkey would fail to gain approval from the EU Commission on 6 October. Only an absolute majority, 16 of 30 members, is required for the report to be approved. It appears that 4 members are opposed to Turkey: Frits Bolkestein (The Netherlands), Franz Fiscler (Austria), Viviane Redding (Luxembourg), and Jacques Barrot (France).

If the report is approved, then the December 17th EU summit will take a final decision based on the December 2002 summit decisions (19th paragraph). Membership discussions would start without delay if the EU leaders decide that Turkey has fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria. It is known that some EU members have suggested that talks with Turkey begin only after the EU Constitution is approved next year.

Despite being critical of Turkey's human rights record over the years, the European Parliament has traditionally been supportive of Turkey's bid to join the Union. But elections to the expanded EU Parliament last June, and some new Eastern European members and others might oppose Ankara's entry. Turkey's entry into the EU has been a major internal issue in several EU members, including Germany, where the conservative Christian Democrats gained the most seats in the European Parliament elections fought partly on their opposition to Ankara’s entry. The outgoing Dutch European commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, warned a! few weeks ago of the "Islamisation of Europe" should Turkey join the union. "The relief of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain," he declared. "We don't think that we should start negotiations with Turkey," said French conservative Jacques Toubon, adding that Turkey gaining membership "will result in a Europe without a political union."

European Christians come out in true colours

So doubts and opposition from European politicians to Turkey's entry boiled over on the adultery clause. Last week the Commission's President-designate, José Manuel Barroso, said he hoped for progress on the issue but Turkey was not yet ready for membership. The outgoing Austrian commissioner, Franz Fischler, stirred up more strong feeling by asserting that broad anti-Turkish public opinion across the EU should not be ignored.

Christian Europeans forget the violence they inflicted on Asians and Africans but cite Ottoman victories in Europe to arouse feelings against today’s Turkey. They talk of the siege of Vienna, 321 years ago, when the Polish king, John III, after a plea from the Vatican, marshalled a huge Roman Catholic army to save Christendom, Europe and Austria, by routing the Turks and halting the Turkish advance into the European heartland. In Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, killing of Muslims was called revenge against Ottoman violence. In Catholic Slovenia, the poster boy of post-Yugoslav success, integrated into the EU and Nato as a stable and prosperous democracy, Ljubljana is the sole EU capital city without a mosque. For decades, Slovene Catholics have thwarted attempts by the country's 50,000-strong Muslim community to build a mosque, even after the constitutional court early this year finally threw out demands for a referendum to ban it. Recently USA suddenly discovered that Saudi Arabia has no religious freedom. Double standards of Christian nations who preach to others.

Turkophobia seems to be sweeping the EU region and deep-seated European prejudice is showing its true colours, and political elites are in a panic. The so called liberal EU societies would be tested. The liberal Viennese news weekly Profil last week headlined its editorial” The Turks at the Gates of Vienna,” contending that Turkey's accession was "not so much a risk as a danger". In France, ‘Le Figaro’'s Renaud Girard claimed that, despite the "enthusiasm" of their governments, "the vast majority of European citizens, attached to values inherited from Christian thought ... are opposed to Turkey's accession." The German daily Handelsblatt said that in Turkey  "torture and abuse continue, the military still plays a central role. There is a long way to go to a democratic state." Die Welt listed "10 arguments against Turkey's accession". Ultimately, it said, there was no place for Turkey in the union because "it is not part of Europe".

In Austria fascist leader Jörg Haider, has threatened to bring down the centre-right government if it agrees to Turkey’s accession talks. Both the government and the opposition are opposed to Turkey’s entry. Austrian opinion polls show two-thirds against admitting Turkey. In Germany, home to nearly 3 million Turks, its biggest ethnic minority, a poll last week showed 55% against Turkey joining. In Germany last week, the opposition Christian Democrat leader, Angela Merkel, who could be the next Chancellor, came out categorically against Turkish membership, urging all her fellow centre-right leaders in the EU to form an anti-Turkish bloc.

Christian clerical bias is out too. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Vatican’s prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and hence ideologue- in- chief said in Lazio, Italy, that the underlying foundations of the European Union were based on Christianity. He claimed that Turkey's admission into the EU would be a "grave mistake." “Turkey has, culturally and historically, represented a "different continent" vis-a-vis Europe from the outset,” he added. "It would be better for Turkey to play a bridge role between Europe and the Arab world. Although Kemal Ataturk created a secular state, this country still has Islamic foundations.”

While French President Jacques Chirac has backed Turkey's membership bid, his own party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is totally opposed. In France, the polls show only a slim majority in favour of Turkey joining "eventually" despite strong opposition from much of the French elite. France is a majority Catholic country. Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has led the European opposition to Turkey’s entry since years.

Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou claimed that Turkey would be unable to join unless the Cyprus dispute was resolved and warned that the Greek Cypriot administration can veto Turkey's bid for an accession date. The Greek newspaper Ta Vima said that anti-Turkey circles within the EU were relying on the veto of Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos. Recently, while Turkey had leaned on Turkish Cypriots to support a UN devised solution to the decades old Cyprus dispute; it was rejected by Greek Cypriots. This is just an example how difficult it is going to be for Turkey now that there are 25 members in EU.

According to a poll carried out on 14/15 September by the Ramboell institute for daily Jyllands-Posten, almost half of Danes were opposed to Turkey joining the EU. The reasons for opposition were; Turkey was a Muslim country, its poor human rights record, increased immigration, its economy not modern enough, cultural divide, not part of Europe geographically. A recent public opinion survey in Europe and USA by the German Marshall Fund of the US, found Europeans deeply confused at the prospect of a Muslim country of 70 million joining the union. In Europe 40% were not sure whether Turkey's membership was good or bad.

Such views reflect religious, cultural and historical prejudices and increasing racism , including anti-Semitism; for the latter, Israel’s policy under Arial Sharon is mostly responsible. The prospects of Turkey joining EU has unnerved Europeans. There seems to be no constructive debate on Turkey’s entry, made no doubt more difficult by 9/11 attacks, US invasion of Iraq, the resistance and violence and now hostage taking and killing of foreigners, including Christians from Europe.

Along with Jacques Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also support Turkey's bid. So does UK strongly, where the minorities appear better integrated, so far. From statements by government and other leaders, various opinion polls, media reports it appears that Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland favour Turkey, while Austria and Luxembourg are opposed. The position of the following countries is not clear; Germany (government for, opposition and public opinion against), Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Cyprus, Greece (government for, public opinion strongly against), Poland, Belgium, Netherlands, Slovenia, Lithuania and Latvia.

Giscard d'Estaing, the architect of the new European constitution said before the 2002 summit that Turkish membership would signal "the end of the EU". Turkey was "not a European country". It had "a different culture, a different approach, and a different way of life".

Recently, Giscard d'Estaing told le Monde that the wording of the draft charter effectively diminished Turkey's chances of joining the EU. He said that a key provision of the constitution, known as double-majority voting, could kill Turkey's chances as its projected population at the time membership talks could be completed, in 10 to 15 years, might exceed that of every EU member and give it the greatest voting power in the council. It could discourage member states to let Turkey into the Union. The current system relies less on demography. "This is a rule we can't change," said Giscard. 

Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain and a member of the drafting committee said in April. "I strongly believe that it is in the EU interest to have Turkey as a member, but under the double-majority arrangement, Turkey has no chance of ever joining.". "I would say that the proposal was not tabled in innocence, and having been a member of the convention, I know what I'm saying," added Palacio. Fischler, a drafting member of the 6 October report in a letter to fellow commissioners which was leaked to the Financial Times, said that Turkey’s membership could cost E11.3 billion, or $13.9 billion,! in agricultural subsidies per year. Europe risked "imploding" with such an influx of Islamic inhabitants.

Giscard has suggested a strategic or economic partnership with Turkey. "We have boxed ourselves in a corner," Giscard said. "There are a lot of formulas outside the pure and simple membership, like a strategic partnership or a Nafta-like economic partnership." Greek paper Ta Vima also said the EU would agree to start accession talks with Turkey in late 2005 or the first half of 2006 and further claimed that the EU would put tough conditions and it would be "impossible" for Turkey to conclude its negotiating process with the EU before 2020.

A recent “Newsweek article, while blaming Erdogan for the adultery spat said that many in Europe wanted to keep Turkey out because it is large, poor, and, most importantly, because it is Muslim. The adultery law symbolized their fears. It said that "Turkey is a developing country that has undertaken the most dramatic economic, political and social reforms in the world by deregulating its economy, simplifying its tax code and bringing its fiscal house in order, resulting in 8.2 percent growth this year and a 10 percent rise in productivity."

"And what is truly being lost is perhaps the most significant point of all; each of these progressive, modernizing moves are being made by a ruling party that represents the people, unlike so many of the liberals in the Arab world who are an unelected elite. The AK Party has shown that a devotion to Islam is entirely compatible with liberalism, pluralism and democracy. For this reason it is the most powerful symbol of modern Islam in the world today, a symbol that could have resonance for the Middle East, Europe's own Muslim population and the entire Islamic world." Turkey has been mistakenly held as a model for Muslim politics in the West until it was revealed that "this was a Western fantasy."

 "Ataturk's hyper secular republic, allied to America and Israel, was never going to move the hearts of Muslims. The AK Party has changed even that. By softening the edges of Turkey's secularism, by emphasizing clean government, by reaching out to the Middle East, it is becoming a more approachable model for Muslims. But to build this image it must be able to do some things that reflect the concerns of the Muslim masses, not the elites,"

In 1994, when Gul was spokesman for foreign affairs for the Welfare Party, he said, "Turkey should not join the European Union, we have said this from the beginning. Look at a European city, and then look at Istanbul. It's not a Christian city." A few years ago, Erdogan recited a poem that included the verses, "Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, and believers are our soldiers." For this, he was jailed and subsequently debarred from contesting the November elections. They have come a long way since then.

At the European Parliament, Erdogan tried to soothe growing European concerns about Turkey’s readiness to join the EU, and acknowledged that it would "take time." "Implementation will require a change in mentality and this will not be easy," he said. This was also addressed to Turks, who might hope to get into EU soon. Both Erdogan and Gul have said that final membership would take time and have even hinted that the talks could begin some time next year . "It will take a long time, maybe 10 years. For Spain, it took eight years," Gul told a press conference recently in Estonia. 


The leadership on the two sides are faced with very delicate task. In view of the international strategic situation, with a Crusade and Jihad going on between U.S. led coalition and Osama ben Laden and his Jihadis, militants and terrorists, it frightens many right-wing leaders and political parties in Europe to grant free movement to 70 million Muslims into EU states.  Then there are historical memories being revived in European media by right wing leaders for electoral gains.  In recent history Milosevich used the defeat of Serbs in Kosovo by Ottomans to arouse jingoist nationalistic feelings and strengthen his position.  Thus the timing for entry has become difficult.

Since the 2002 EU summit there has been deterioration in relations between USA and Turkey. It underlines the fast changing strategic scenario in the region in the post-Cold War era, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 attacks on USA, the US-led invasion on Iraq and the deteriorating security situation there. Turkey is now moving away from USA, and clearly towards the Europe Union. Recently the Economist wrote,"Does Turkey really have an alternative to closer ties with Europe? Relations with the country's most owerful ally, the US, have been overshadowed by differences over Iraq," while links with Israel have been similarly strained, it said. Turkey has expressed desire to buy European Airbus aircraft for its civil airlines and purchase more defence equipment from Europe.

Turkey has come closer to Syria, is normalizing relations with Iran and with better economic relations with Russia, was hoping to improve upon them further but for the terrorist massacre at Beslan which put paid to Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara. Turkey has also moved away from its military friend Israel, USA ‘s umbilically aligned strategic partner in the Middle East. Turkey recently accused Israel of ‘state terrorism’ against Palestinians .A recent ruling party team from Turkey came back from Tel Aviv, dissatisfied with Israeli explanations. Ankara has also accused Israel of interfering in north Iraq, which would further destabilize the region and adversely affect Turkish interests.

There is little doubt that Turkey has made very sincere and vigorous efforts to tailor itself to the requirements of EU criteria, even though the ruling party has Islamic roots.  Majority of Turkish population believes that joining the EU would increase employment and bring in prosperity. With USA’s Iraq policy unraveling every day, remaining engaged with EU and implementing the reforms fully, in the process of finally joining it will be best for Turkey. Also for Europe and the stability for the region too, as Turkey with a million strong disciplined armed forces is a crucial factor for stability. Of course for AKP it happily al! so means that the secular establishment led by Turkish Armed Forces, whose role has been whittled down can be kept at bay. Disengagement could lead to an upsurge of Islamic and nationalistic sentiments among Turks and undermine its role as a bulwark against actual and potential cauldrons of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. Turkey's strategic importance for stability in the Caucasus and Central Asia cannot be discounted either. 

A coalition government led by Islamist Prime Minister Najmettin Erbakan, leader of the Welfare party, was made to resign by the Armed Forces in 1997. Both Erdogan and Gul and most other senior leaders belonged to that party, since banned. Most Islamist political parties were banned by the secular establishment. APK party’s massive win was a surprise but it has given Turkey stability. There is no doubt that the human rights situation in Turkey was quite bad compared to European standards, but since last 4/5 years Turkish governments and all other parties have gone out of their way to reform the constitution in order to conform to Copenhagen criteria and liberate the country from the military manufactured rigid 1982 Constitution. 

Apart from its own conservative voters, AKP has won the support of moderate secular voters because of the reforms and its sustained effort to join the EU. According to recent polls AKP would poll 50% of the votes, and unless something drastic happens, it would remain in power.  Indeed it did very well in recent municipal elections.  Apart from the Conservative masses it has also attracted middle-class voters because of its transparent and clean government.  Most of the coalition governments in recent past were riddled with corruption. Thus a policy of keeping Turkey engaged with EU, even through long-term accession negotiations, is the best solution for all. It will keep Turkey engaged and further stabilize its secular and modernizing forces and policies, while its secular armed forces ensure that AKP does not become too Islamic.

(K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war), Romania and Senegal.  He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.  The views expressed here are his own.-