U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently blamed Europe for alienating Turkey from the West. On a visit to London last Wednesday, he stated, “If there’s anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastwards, it is in no small part because it was pushed, and it was pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”
When Turkey was accepted as a European Union candidate at the Helsinki summit in 1999, the Ecevit government subsequently enacted two important constitutional reform packages and a revision to the Civil Code which established the principle of gender equality in the family. When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, it was with the promise of further reform, and seven more reform packages were passed.
Despite reservations about implementation, in October 2004 the European Commission found that Turkey had “sufficiently” fulfilled the political criteria for membership and recommended the start of accession talks. However, when these talks began the following year, the AKP government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost interest in the European perspective and concentrated on a domestic agenda with the main aim of securing its power base. This included a policy of kadrolaşma in state and local administration, which means filling leading positions with party supporters and fellow believers. Through “neighborhood pressure,” the government embarked on a process of social engineering to enforce conservative, Islamic standards throughout Turkish society.
High on the AKP government’s agenda was making it possible for graduates of religious high schools (the imam-hatip schools) to enter university on an equal footing with students from state high schools. However, because of secular opposition, these attempts have so far been unsuccessful.
The headscarf – that is, the tightly knotted Islamic headscarf and not the loosely worn village headscarf – is widely regarded as a symbol of political Islam, and Prime Minister Erdogan admitted as much at a meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Madrid in 2008. However, the fact that the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban on the Islamic headscarf at Turkish universities was a setback that Mr. Erdogan was not prepared to accept.
As has been illustrated by Turkey’s vote in the UN Security Council against further sanctions on Iran, Turkey’s “multi-dimensional” foreign policy has been directed more towards cementing its relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors than advancing its cause in Europe. Particularly, after the Turkish government’s endorsement of the alleged aid flotilla and the stand-off with Israel, Turkey’s claim of being “the honest broker of the Middle East” rings hollow. This is all not to mention, of course, the Armenian issue, Turkey’s own Kurdish problem, and the fact that Turkey, for the last 36 years, has occupied a third of what is now an EU member state – Cyprus.
In a television interview in 2004, Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, let his views be known on Europe letting Turkey into the European Union, stating: “The Islamic world, even the Islamic extremists, even bin Laden, rejoice for the entrance of Turkey in the European Union. This is their Trojan horse.” Last week, addressing a delegation of European Muslim leaders, Gaddafi supported Turkey’s membership, using the same argument.
If Robert Gates wants to blame anyone for the West losing Turkey, he should perhaps take a look closer to home – i.e. the U.S. State Department, which, as far as Turkey is concerned, has also been out of touch. For example, in May 2007, Condoleeza Rice stated that the AKP is “a government dedicated to pulling Turkey west toward Europe.” Seven months earlier, when President Sezer and the Turkish military warned about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, Ross Wilson, described the debate as “cacophonic” and added: “There is nothing that I see imminently on the horizon that makes me particularly worried.”
The main stumbling block to the continuation of EU accession talks with Turkey is the Cyprus question. Here Ross Wilson’s successor, James Jeffrey, tops the bill when, in a February interview with the Turkish daily Sabah, he stated: “Geographically, Turkey is closer to the EU than Cyprus. Cyprus was still an EU member when I last checked. As a matter of fact, most of Turkey is closer to Berlin or Paris. Under these conditions, what keeps Turkey out of the EU?”
There is a further truth which has eluded Robert Gates. As the little-known Turkish philosopher from the 1950’s, Celal Yaliniz, once wrote: “Turkey is a ship heading for the East. Those aboard think they are heading for the West. In fact, they are just running westwards in a ship sailing eastwards.”
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.