Çağri Çobanoğlu

"I do not think that Turkey has a place in Europe. Because Turkey is a part of Asia Minor.....What I propose for Turkey is not a union, but a partnership." said French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 in a TV programme.

It was not surprising for many in Turkey that Sarkozy made such a remark.

However, Sarkozy is not the only European leader who says publicly that Turkey has no place in the European Union (EU). German Chancellor Angela Merkel promotes privileged partnership which has been rejected by Turkish government many times.

Turkey wants nothing less than full membership to the EU. Turkish people are already tired of listening ‘Turkey is not European’ statements coming from European leaders like Sarkozy and Merkel. The rise of extreme right parties and Islamophobia is shaping minds of Turkish people towards Europe in a negative way, too.

It is a common question from Europeans how Islam would cope with the EU. The answer is that in the same way other religions cope with the Europe, as Judaism and Christianity.

There is no such thing that members of a specific religion show same kind of behaviour. When people accuse Islam of oppressing or putting women in the second class position, they forget other religions.

There are ultra-Ortodox Jews in Israel who oppose girls who go to school or ultra-orthodox newspapers in Israel which blur faces of women because they are women. However, this does not raise a question like how Judaism would cope with the Europe. It is same thing for Islam. European law is clear and everyone should respect it. It is highly crucial to stress on that Turkey has never demanded any change in the EU rules to align with Islam. Turkey itself as a secular country, accepts rules of the game but Turkey wants the EU not to find excuses to keep Turkey out of the EU once Turkey completes Copenhagen and Maastricht criteria.

The poll conducted by The German Marshall Fund of the United States in 2011 shows that only 48 percent of Turkish people thinks membership to the EU is a good thing.1 This is a very low percentage comparatively to the percentage of support for the EU membership among Turkish people in years of 2004, 2005 and even 2006, which is 73 percent, 63 percent and 54 percent respectively. According to the poll, the support has never been over 50 percent since 2006.

According to another poll announced by ATAUM (Ankara University European Research Center)2 in 2010, more than 32 percent of Turkey’s population does not believe Turkey will be a member of the EU. Almost 25 percent of the population thinks the EU membership would not be possible earlier than 15 years. This means many people do not see the membership to the EU a realistic aim at all or in near future.

It is not only polls where you can see Turkey’s cooling with the EU. Today the EU membership is not popular as it was 6 years ago. It is not on front pages of newspapers anymore. You can not see TV discussions about the EU membership. Shortly, it is not on agenda of Turkish public anymore.

As a result of decreasing interest on European Union issue, no political party stressed on the EU membership on their election propaganda for last two general elections which were held in 2007 and 2011.

Economic crisis and high unemployment rates in Europe and Turkey’s comparatively economic success makes Turkish public think Turkey is already doing well without the EU. After witnessing what happened in Greek and Italian economy, Turkish people are more skeptical towards the idea that the EU membership is the source of wealth which was a common idea for years.

But again, the membership that does not seem possible in near future, makes people unmotivated to discuss economic issues relevant to the EU because it does not matter if the EU membership is good or bad for the economy, as long as Turkey’s chance to be the member stays unpredictable for many years to come.

On issues of democracy, human rights and rule of law, Turkey needs a long way to reach the level of the EU but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not keen on doing more reforms for the EU membership.

The EU membership has already been a tool in democratizing Turkey and eliminating the power of Turkish army in the politics. Erdogan’s supporters who are predominantly pious people of Turkey, gave full support for legal reforms undertaken for the EU membership, to stop Turkish generals from interfering politics.

Democracy, freedom of speech, transparency in government and keeping security forces accountable to the people are values of the EU which are also very important for Turkish people. However, now Turkish people think they do not need the EU to gain these rights. With the EU or without the EU, people in Turkey demand more rights.

Turkey also demands to have the free movement of people in Schengen area. This is another hard topic between the EU and Turkey. Some say the main reason of the EU to oppose Turkish membership is the fear of a big population of immigrants from Anatolia to Europe.

Raci Kayser, a Turkish bus driver (54) in Istanbul thinks that Turkey’s entry to the EU is impossible because the EU would not take the risk of a possible immigration from Turkey in huge numbers. “That is the main dispute.” he says.

But not everyone, is pessimistic as Raci. Alaz Kuseyri (26) a history student in Istanbul Bilgi University, believes Turkey would be a member of the EU at future. He is not worried about negative remarks by Sarkozy or Merkel. “There are states in Europe like England or Spain supporting Turkey’s membership. More importantly, Sarkozy seems to lose next elections. In Germany, social democrats who are not against Turkey’s membership politically, are rising up. European leaders who stand against Turkey, will lose their seats in near future”, Alaz says.

On the other hand, there is another risk that Turkish government may not be forcing to get the membership anymore. Today many say Erdogan has already halted the risk of a military takeover and he has no need to continue reforms in line with European Union standarts in freedom of speech, civil liberties and cultural and social rights for ethnically different communities in Turkey.

It is not hard to see the decreasing impact of the EU on Turkey lets Turkish government follow a more authoriatian way against its opponents.

In 2011 progress report about Turkey, European Commission looks concerned about arbitrary arrests of Kurdish elected politicians and human rights activists under the trial of KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan). The report mentions “the need to bring the Turkish criminal justice system into line with international standards and to amend the anti-terror legislation.” 3

Kurdish case gets sympathy from Europe for many years. It is not a secret that Kurds would benefit from living in a country which meets European standarts in democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. Kurdish party BDP also wants Turkish goverment to implement reforms, demanded by the EU, which would give some autonomy to local governments. On the other hand, they do not stress on the EU membership as much as expected. But why not ?

It could only be speculated that the inclusion of armed group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to the EU’s terror list and crackdown on the PKK-connected Kurdish organizations in Europe sparked a negative reaction among Kurdish movement against the EU.

It is also important to note here there have been calls from Europe to the BDP to distance itself from the PKK.

However, Erdogan’s biggest political rival party is not the BDP but Republican People’s Party (CHP) which is not a big fan of European Union. Though the party’s new leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu shows efforts to construct a new approach to the main issues in the country, CHP has a long tradition of being obssessed with national sovereignty. CHP’s voters have far more nationalist tendencies against the EU than Erdogan’s supporters have.

When Erdogan government supported saying ‘yes’ for the UN referendum on Cyprus to unite Turkish and Greek parts of the island in 2004, CHP and its voters used it against the government by accusing them of ‘selling out’ Turkish part of Cyprus.

Another political community in Turkey, ultra-nationalists who are supporters of Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have always been anti-EU, not surprisingly.

For the conclusion, the future does not seem bright for Turkey’s membership to the EU and the worse thing is no one really cares from both sides.

1 TRANSATLANTIC TRENDS 2011 http://www.gmfus.org/publications_/TT/TT2011_final_web.pdf

2 ATAUM, KAMUOYU VE TURK DIS POLITIKASI ANKETI OCAK 2010 http://ataum.ankara.edu.tr/anket.pdf

3 EUROPEAN COMMISSION, TURKEY 2011 PROGRESS REPORT http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2011/package/tr_rapport_2011_en.pdf

Cagri Cobanoglu is a correspondent working in foreign news desk of TVNET - a national Turkish TV Channel. The article is a personal opinion.