Monday, 10 June 2013

The Final Nail In Turkey's EU Bid?

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s behaviour during the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square may very well have put the final nail into Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Once seen as a moderately religious catalyst of much needed democratic change in Turkey, his recent behaviour has demonstrated his deep-rooted intolerance, distrust of real democracy and narrow-minded hostility toward any dissent.

This revelation of his real character will only reinforce the questions that EU leaders already had about Turkey's membership bid. One indication of this looming confrontation came at a recent conference in Istanbul when the EU's latest commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Füle of the Czech Republic,  offered some mild criticism of the way the demonstrations in Taksim Park were handled. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reacted with his usual outrage, accused the EU of double standards and blasted it for dragging its feet over Turkey’s membership.

The European Union and Turkey
At a certain point one has to ask ‘Why bother?’ It’s important to distinguish between the idea of Turkey per se joining the EU and Turkey under Prime Minister Erdoğan gaining admittance to the club. One can make a strong argument about a large, dynamic Moslem Eurasian country injecting some much needed dynamism into the European Union. Unfortunately, Erdoğan’s Turkey presents a much different picture.

We are talking about two completely different views of what is appropriate governance. It is very difficult to see Prime Minister Erdoğan accepting the EU’s view of the world, and it is equally impossible to see the EU accepting Erdoğan’s vision of proper governance. It’s almost as if each side wants the other to be the first to call the talks off.  Many EU members have been unenthusiastic about Turkish membership from the beginning, and Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has shown absolutely no sign that he appreciates or even understands values that the EU holds dear – real commitment to human rights, absolute freedom of expression, and, above all, the need for compromise.

Erdoğan’s idea of negotiation is to trot out his loyal terrier Egemen Bağış who is the minister in charge of negotiating with the EU. What, exactly, is being negotiated?  Every time the EU brings up a difficult point Bağıș reacts more like a kid in a 5th grade school yard than a serious counter party. His default reaction to any criticism is that the ‘Great Turkish Nation’ has been insulted and that the EU simply is anti-Moslem. He continues that the EU’s record is worse than Turkey’s, and that union is guilty of the by-now famous double standards. Turkey, according to Bağıș has done all that is required of it. He will then go on the offensive and say that it is the EU that needs Turkey, not the other way around. He outdid himself recently by suggesting that not only should Turkey join the EU, but that it should lead the union. In other words, rather than Turkey adopting European norms of governance Europe should become more like Turkey. This must have gone down well in Berlin, Paris and The Hague.

Turkey's EU Negotiator Egemen Bagis
With 27 members and a cumbersome decision-making process the EU has mastered the art of ‘muddle-through´ compromise. This may be very awkward, but very few members seriously want to return to the pre-EU days of virulent nationalism that led to centuries of bloody conflict. Tayyip Erdoğan, however, sees no need to compromise. It’s doubtful he even knows what the word means. His governing approach has been simply to scorn, discredit and roll over any opposing viewpoint.  In his world, his view is the only acceptable one. It is almost impossible to envision Tayyip Erdoğan sitting around a conference table until the small hours of the morning trying to reach a compromise suitable to all members.
His opinion of the media is more suitable to Russia or China than a member of the European Union. He has openly stated that he has a ‘problem’ with the media. Sometimes, not very often in today’s Turkey, various members of the media will stray from the party line and offer a view that is different from Erdoğan’s. How would he deal with something as irreverent as The Sun in Britain or Le Canard Enchainé in Paris?

He has also said he is opposed to the normal checks and balances found in most mature democracies. He sees no need to ‘check’ or ‘balance’ his powers. It’s very difficult to see how this approach would work in the EU where checks and balances are the operating norm.

Given this wide gulf in ideas of governance there is only one possible explanation for the continuation of this sterile exercise. It serves the cynical purposes of both the European Union and Turkey. The EU can pretend that it is seriously considering a large Moslem country as a potential member – without actually doing anything. Erdoğan can use the continued stalling to reinforce is nationalist/religious base at home. He gains valuable points by blasting to so-called double standards of the EU and intimating heavily that it is nothing more than a Moslem-hating Christian club. He can establish himself as the only true Turkish leader willing to stand up to the perfidious group of Turkey-haters. This goes down extremely well with the Turkish ‘street’ that has been taught from an early age that ‘A Turk Has No Friend But A Turk.’

This empty exercise has become a parody of negotiations and does a disservice to both parties. The European Union really could benefit from a Turkey that understands and practices real democratic governance. And Turkey, now essentially left with zero friends, could clearly benefit from closer political as well as economic ties to the EU. But the process has become mired in the swamp of mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. Maybe it is a time to take a break and let everyone re-assess the basic goal of the entire operation.

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