Mutual Mistrust

The Greatest Barrier to Turkey Fulfilling The Political Requirements Are Laid Out in the "Copenhagen Criteria" Necessary to Join the EU.

Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan today at the EP
Mutual Mistrust : The Greatest Barrier to Turkey Fulfilling The Political Requirements Are Laid Out in the "Copenhagen Criteria" Necessary to Join the EU. - Alastair Coutts


The EU has long not fully trusted whether Turkey really intends to make the political and cultural changes necessary for EU membership. Turkey, for its part, reciprocates the suspicion. Turkish President Ozal stated in 1992, Turkey's human rights record "is a made up reason why Turkey should not join the EU. The real reason is that we are Muslim, and they are Christian". From the Turkish point of view, the EU has never been serious about admitting Turkey.


"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."1

Not an unusual sentiment in Western Europe. Yet this was not from a German Christian Democrat or an elderly French statesman, but none other than Abdullah Gul, former Prime Minister of Turkey and right hand man to the current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This quote is from 1994. However, given their ruling AK Party is now firmly commit­ted to the reforms required to satisfy the political criteria to join the European Union (EU), their change of heart has aroused suspicion in the EU. Yet this is just the latest. The EU has long not fully trusted whether Turkey really intends to make the political and cultural changes neces­sary for EU membership.

Turkey, for its part, reciprocates the suspicion. Turkish President Ozal stated in 1992, Turkey's human rights record "is a made up reason why Turkey should not join the EU. The real reason is that we are Mus­lim, and they are Christian".2 From the Turkish point of view, the EU has never been serious about admitting Turkey. But Turkey's undeniable geo­strategic importance means there has been much to be gained by keeping it close to membership.

These two points of view exaggerate the truth. But both have some validity. The purpose oft his paper is to understand why the mutual mistrust exists and assess whether the two sides can go beyond it. In doing so, firstly the roots of Turkish suspicions towards the EU will be addressed. These are primarily of a historical nature. This will be fol­lowed by a look at EU concerns towards Turkey. These, by contrast, have a chiefly cultural character. Finally, it will be proposed that, for reasons more related to the internal mechanisms of the EU, rather than because of a bilateral understanding, the EU will ultimately deem Turkey to have fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria.

What are the Copenhagen Criteria?

The 1993 Copenhagen European Council summit laid out criteria that all candidate countries must satisfy before they can embark on negotiations with the EU. The "Copenhagen Criteria" have economic and political components. However, because a customs union has existed between the EU and Turkey since 1995, Turkey satisfies most of the economic criteria. It is the political criteria, which state it is essential "that the candidate has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities"3 that have proven to be problematic. These criteria will this be the focus of the paper.

Turkish Suspicions of the EU

"The West has always been prejudiced against the Turks ... but we the Turks have always consistently moved towards the West...In order to be a civilized nation, there is no alternative."4 Kemal Ataturk.

By straddling both physical and ideological divides, Turkey has been described by Samuel Huntington as one oft he world's future "torn" states.5 And "torn" countries are condemned to a gloomy future (as he expects Turkey to be). However, a re-orientation away from an Asian legacy towards Europe was exactly what the founder oft he modern Turkish state, Kemal, sought to achieve. And in doing so, he deliberately attempted to avoid the perceived weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire: namely expansionism and national heterogeneity.6 Irredentism was dropped, secularism adopted and the French model of a centralized nation state was imposed onto a Turkish population hitherto unfamiliar with the concept of state loyalty. However, while homogeneity and secularism gave the state a more "modern" appearance, the way it came about was in an authoritarian manner. Adoption of the Latin alphabet was mandatory, the calendar was converted to Gregorian, the Caliphate and Sharia courts were abolished, and wearing the fez was banned. And the military was granted the role as protector of the state. Understanding this Kemalist legacy in relation to Turkey's EU membership highlights an important contradiction: integral to Kemalism is "modernization", and joining the EU represents the next step in this direction; the manner and style of Kemalism is inconsistent with the standards of the club that it wants to join. The disapproval by many in Europe of this "progress" has been met with consternation in Turkey. However, as Tocci points out, many in Turkey have missed the point. In fact, it is the Kemalist legacy itself that is the problem. EU perceived shortcomings, such as the role of the military or suppression of the Kurdish minority result directly from this.7 Most in Turkey are proud of Kemalism. Therefore, this lack of recognition has fostered a sense of dismay. This was particularly evident during the Cold War. Feeling genuinely threatened by the Soviet Union and becoming a member of NATO in 1952, Turkey felt it was playing a crucial role in the Western security alliance. As part of a move to position itself with the west, Turkey first applied to the EEC in the year following its creation in 1958. However, as with all attempts throughout the Cold War, the application was unsuccessful. Suspicion grew that the EU dangled the carrot of EU membership simply to keep Turkey "on side" with the West without there ever being any intention to actually go through with it. Thus, the end of the Cold War brought about a new sense of anxiety for Turkey. Firstly, it witnessed former Soviet Eastern Euro­pean countries (CEEC's) being extended the invitation by the EU, whilst it was still being denied. Secondly, Turkey was acutely aware that it geo­strategic significance to both the US and the EU was at best subject to change, and at worse risked being deemed worthless. Such was its sense of insecurity, Turkey briefly considered a re-orientation back towards Asia: namely a policy of Eurasianism. In February 1992, Demirel, then prime minister, envisioned "a gigantic Turkic world stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China". 8 Turkey was to be the example and leader of this world.

Ultimately its failure sadly highlighted Turkey's lack of financial and ideological wherewithal to take on such a leadership role. So while this attempt indicated the sense of insecurity Turkey felt, its failure only confirmed Turkey's perceived need for closer association with the EU. Besides, the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted a change in the EU's attitude, not just towards Turkey, but towards the membership criteria in general: Turkey's geo-strategic position was weaker; the EU started to see itself more as a social and political institution. And as Sevilay Elgun Kahraman said, the "Turkish authorities failed to notice the shift in community priorities... Consequently, they believed that ... the economic reforms they had been implementing since 1980 [in preparation for the customs union] would satisfy the conditions for accession."9 But this was not the case. The tightening of political criteria (culminating in the Copenhagen criteria of 1993) seemed to send a pointed message to Turkey. Not only were the CEEC's leapfrogging Turkey into membership, but also the criteria were becoming harder. Indeed, the 1997 publishing of Agenda 2000 seemed to confirm Turkey's suspicions. Whilst all candidate countries were placed either on a "fast track" or "slow track", Turkey was on neither. Such was its consternation, Turkey halted all relations with the EU.10 To those in Turkey, at least, this seemed to be confirmation that the promises of EU membership throughout the Cold War had been hollow. The conditions of membership had been tightened; Turkey would now have to achieve the agreement of an additional ten or twelve new members.

Today, relations between Turkey and the EU are more constructive, thanks initially to a confluence of events in 1999. The arrest of the PKK leader in February 1999 quickly brought about a virtual end to Kurdish separatist violence; a more reformist coalition government was elected in April; and Greek aid for the Istanbul earthquakes heralded a significant improvement in Greco-Turkish relations. However, even this most recent rapprochement has not helped cure the relationship of its inher­ent suspicions. Nevertheless, the Helsinki summit in December 1999 saw Turkey finally being granted candidate status, 11 albeit without a timetable for its accession. Then, as part of the build up to the 2002 general elec­tion, the incumbent government, recognizing the popular support for EU membership, embarked on a series of ambitious political reforms. Three legal packages followed, 12 making significant progress towards meeting many of the aspects laid out in the Copenhagen criteria. However, whilst still insufficient ("Turkey does not fully meet the criteria"),13 they had the effect of raising Turkish expectations that the December 2002 Copenhagen summit would finally see Turkey given a date to start nego­tiations. Unsurprisingly, despite a generally positive reception of the international lobbying efforts of Turkey's new leader, Erdogan, Turkey did not receive a firm date to start negotiations. Instead, it got "a date for a date": if Turkey has met the political Copenhagen Criteria by December 2004, negotiations will commence "without delay."14

Some in Turkey recognized this as a positive outcome. Previously, July 2005 had been mentioned as a possible point to start negotiations. Indeed, Erdogan himself described it as "an historic victory" when he returned to the Turkish parliament.15 However, only days before the Copenhagen summit, Prime Minister Gul had said, "We have our own Plan B. We would not like to offend other countries, but we cannot tolerate such a thing [referring to a lack of date being granted]. We will not keep on sitting in the waiting room."16

The historical context outlined above is important to this paper for one reason: many within Turkey feel that their country has not been dealt with fairly; and this has served to create arguably the biggest barrier to full cooperation between the EU and Turkey, namely mistrust. "Turkey has a more developed market economy than most of these countries [CEEC's] and its political problems are no worse than those of many of the other applicants"17 is a view typical in Turkey. As Prime Minister Ozal stated in 1999, "as Turkey had shared for forty years the burden of the defense of Europe against communism, it should share the benefits of European economic growth."18 A peace dividend was owed to Turkey, but none has been forthcoming. Furthermore, the end of the ideological battle contained in the Cold War seemed to bring about a change in the cultural goals of the EU. The religious (and hence cultural) overlap with Eastern European countries meant they were natural members of the European "family". Turkey's non-Christian nature meant it was not.19

Certainly these sentiments are biased. Nonetheless, it has created a feeling that the EU is deliberately keeping Turkey "in the waiting room": holding Turkey close enough so as to not lose the benefits of having Turkey aligned with the EU, namely a stable democracy on its borders in a volatile region; but not having to bear the consequences of its member­ship in terms of potential migration or cultural dilution.20 However, for its part, Turkey has consistently exaggerated its chances for membership. It clearly underestimated what the end of the Cold War would mean for conditions of membership. It recognized the downgrading in its geo­strategic importance. But failed to spot the emerging cultural dimension that the CEEC's potential membership would bring.21

EU Suspicions of Turkey

Lack of trust from the EU towards Turkey has two dimensions: a lack of belief that Turkey has the will, conviction or ability to initiate and implement the changes required to meet the Copenhagen criteria; and a concern that Turkey's cultural characteristics are incompatible with those of the EU.

Until a year ago, the EU could argue that Turkey had made little progress in satisfying the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership. However, as a result of reforms passed in the last 18 months Turkey has, on paper at least, started to resemble harmonization with EU standards.

"EU officials say that, though the new laws look good on paper, the EU would like to see them in practice, not least because they have loop­holes galore."22 Is EU skepticism justified? In their defense, a number of areas can be cited. Firstly, the changes are insufficient. For example, the loosening of law 159 ("insult to the State and State institutions and threats to the indivisible unity of the Turkish Republic") still implies a limitation on the freedom of thought. Even the somewhat subjective Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD) ac­knowledges as much, stating, "this amendment was definitely not suffi­cient to guarantee freedom of thought on its own."23 Secondly, while some laws are being loosened, others are being tightened. As a case in point, anti-terror laws that introduced the notion of "propaganda in connection with the (terrorist) organization in a way that encourages the use of terrorist methods" actually saw their sentences increased. Thirdly, some changes have simply involved the shortening of the sentence. This overlooks the fact that the law's very existence is in violation of European standards. For instance, changes to the broadcasting laws now means the closure of TV stations was simply reduced from fifteen to seven days. Finally, the EU believes that loopholes still exist: "Case law shows there has been little consistency in the implementation of the legislative changes."24 Other laws have frequently been used to achieve the same ends. As an illustration, the EU highlights that the law referring to "support for illegal organizations", has been used frequently in the months after the above changes had taken place. In total, there were 100 ending cases against journalists, writers, and publishers.

Which leads on to the issue of the judiciary. "One of the main difficulties... is the inconsistent use, by public prosecutors, of a broad range of articles of the penal code... As a result, there is a lack of clarity, transparency and legal uncertainty."25 Furthermore, the predictability of the law has been questioned. For example, five journalists were convicted under the reformed law 312,26 while others have been acquitted.27 This highlights why the EU remains cautious about Turkey satisfying the political Copenhagen criteria in the short-term. Enacting the reforms is one thing. The EU clearly wants to see their consistent implementation.

Demonstrating the will, conviction and ability to apply the laws consistently is one concern of the EU. But there is broader unease, regarding the nature of the Turkish state. In this context, the role of military is relevant. By defending the principles of the Kemalist state, namely secularism, unity and democracy, the military has thus seen itself as the protector from both external and internal threats (hence the military interventions of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997). Through the National Security Council (MGK), the military has had an institutional­ized role in Turkish politics. It is true that the military recently accepted reduced representation in the MGK28 and is, in theory, a consultative b6dy. In reality, it exercises considerable authority. And it still represents a role for the military in government. Nonetheless, the role of the military is an interesting one. Opinion polls consistently make it the most trusted institution (83%). At 16%, parliament is the least.29 Furthermore, the role of the military is there to protect many of the same qualities that the EU seeks, namely secularism and democracy.

As Tocci points out, "Arguably the role of the military in Turkish political life is questionable in so far as it has facilitated the institutional­ization of repressive measures and human rights violations."30 It is for this reason that the focus on Turkey's track record on torture is symbolic. The most recent EU Progress Report finds that the incidence of torture has decreased significantly, but violations are still present. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) 31 and Human Rights Watch both agree.32 However, as TUSIAD points out, "no matter how many amendments are made, the complete elimination of torture and maltreatment practices is, above all, contingent upon... training and disciplining of the security forces."33 Notwithstanding this, defenders of the military's role take the view of General Cevik Bir, former deputy chief of the general staff, that "the Army is not interested in politics, but we have been tasked to protect the Turkish state as well as our land... Our aim is to help Turkey reach civilization, and the EU is a way to achieve that."34 In other words, the military will be prepared to hand over its custodian role to the EU once full accession is secured. Unsurprisingly, the EU is unconvinced.

Nevertheless, there is some recent anecdotal evidence to suggest that the military is prepared to accept a lesser role. Their acceptance of the coming to power of Erdogan's Islamic based AK Party was significant. One of the main self-perceived roles for the military was controlling the rise of Islamic parties. Only five and a half years ago saw the "soft coup."3s According to the Economist, chief of the armed forces General Hilmi Ozkok accepted that Mr Erdogan enjoyed the support of the Turkish people, and therefore said, "their will should be respected."36 Also, the military's acceptance of the Turkish Parliament's decision to not allow US troops access to Turkish soil during the Iraqi war was signifi­cant. Foreign policy issues, especially those relating to war, were almost exclusively the realm oft he military. Besides, by allowing many oft he recent reforms mentioned above, the military is accepting a less impor­tant role. For example, their influence over the judiciary is significantly less, by virtue of a 1999 reform that rid all state security courts of a military judge for "crimes against the indivisibility of the State."37 Contrastingly, the experience of Cyprus has sent conflicting signals on the power oft he military. The collapse oft he UN led "Annan Plan", which hoped to unite Cyprus in a loose confederation, was blamed by most sides on the Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash ("this time it is overwhelm­ingly Mr. Denktash's fault that the settlement has been blocked").38 And in particular, on support he received from the military: "many ofT urkey's still-too-influential generals see the Turkish-run bit of Cyprus as a strate­gic asset."39 In reality, Cyprus has virtually no strategic importance. If the military did back Denktash to scupper the deal, could their motives have been to actually maintain a stumbling block to Turkey's EU membership? In spite ofG eneral Cevik Bir's above quote, some in the military have good reasons to be squarely opposed to EU membership: a reduced role for the military, transparent democratic government, full compliance with international human rights treaties, less latitude to deal with the Kurdish issue in the future and weaker links with the US. In fact, as recently as March 2002, General Tuncer Kilinc, the Secretary General of the MGK, said that the efforts to join the EU "were doomed to fail," and that Turkey needed new allies; it would be "useful if Turkey engages in a search that would involve Russia and Iran."40

EU cultural concerns extend beyond the role oft he military. In November 2002, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, president oft he EU's consti­tutional convention, spelled it out clearly. By declaring that Turkey's membership "would be the end of Europe" and that Turkey has "a differ­ent culture, a different approach, a different way oflife",41 Giscard ex­posed a blatantly cultural line of opposition. However, Giscard's com­ments proved to be counter-productive. It allowed Erdogan to take the moral high ground ("to say such a thing about such a country... is nothing more than emotion").42 Public opinion across the EU was generally in disagreement. Most importantly, as noted by an EU diplomat, "After Giscard said Turkey could never join the EU, it made it much harder for us not to give Ankara some sort of date for the start of accession talks."43 And this last point also highlights in important aspect of EU enlargement to date: the institutional process can take on its own momentum. Or as the Economist put it, "the EU has an ingrained characteristic working in Turkey's favour: a habit of being trapped by its own promises. It worked for Central Europe. It may yet work for Turkey."44

Will They Agree?

Erdogan recently said in an interview, "We have to reach the level of the Copenhagen criteria [for EU membership]. That means freedom of expression and religion, and ending the ban on broadcasting in one's mother tongue-for Kurds [and] everyone-and ending torture." 45

The election of the Erdogan government represents an important development in maintaining the momentum of reforms towards meeting the criteria. Indeed, it seems that the will certainly exists within the current Turkish government. Success or failure will come down to three factors.

Firstly, does Turkey have enough confidence in the intentions of the EU? This is critical for Turkey to make the psychological leap required to allow consistent implementation of the reforms. As Volkan Vural, Turk­ish diplomat in charge of EU affairs said, the new laws "represent a fundamental change in our concept of identity."46 And the psychological leap refers not only to the military. As the Turkish Daily News reported in the build up to the last election, ironically the pro-EU Turkish Business­men and Industrialists Association (TUSIAD) was found to have had "secret contact" with the military over the issue the emerging Islamic AK Party.47 If the most pro-EU body in Turkey still behaves in this way, what does it say about other institutions?

Secondly, does the EU trust that the recent developments really represent a permanent departure from the traditional Kemalist state? The issue of the military continues to be important, both with regards to the independent functioning of the judiciary and the role of the MGK in politics. The evidence had started to point to an acceptance of a lesser role. However, the collapse of the proposed Cyprus settlement sheds doubt on that. Indeed, unless the Turkish Cypriots are prepared to accept a de facto EU membership along with the Republic of Cyprus, this alone could represent a barrier to EU membership. In this context, the recent opening up of border points across the green line represents a possibly irreversible development for Turkey. But how the military will react to this remains to be seen.

Thirdly, is there sufficient institutional momentum working in Turkey's favor to make the process inevitable? This seems to be what Giscard feared. Notwitl1standing the approval of ten new members and the Cyprus situation, if the experience of the CEEC's is indicative, he is well justified. Furthermore, Turkey has an additional issue working in their favor: the credibility of the EU itself. As Heather Grabb e points out, "Enlargement puts EU credibility on the line. Turkey is the litmus test."48 Thus far, they only have "one really effective foreign policy instrument: the attraction of membership."49

In January 2003, Human Rights Watch listed torture, harassment, freedom of expression, prison conditions and the rights of refugees as areas of concern.50 Still, it implied only torture and freedom of expression remain significant barriers to start negotiations.51 The Erdogan govern­ment seems to realize that by forcing through specific reforms in time for the December 2004 deadline, a window of opportunity exists. By satisfy­ing these particular issues, it will be hard for the EU's institutional process to stop itself. Mutual mistrust could well be put to one side. And negotiations may well begin.