On the Question of Turkey-EU Membership: Yes, No, and Everything in Between [full post]

*By special request, I’m posting my entire paper on the question of whether Turkey SHOULD or SHOULD NOT join the European Union.


To ask the question of whether Turkey should or should not join the European Union is to completely misunderstand the context in which current negotiations are taking place. In other words, when France adamantly and vociferously maintains that if and when Turkey will be “ready” to join the EU, it will leave it up to its electorate to decide by means of a referendum, it completely misses the point. The primary objective of this paper is to briefly outline the contextual backdrop onto which accession talks have been, and continue to be made, by critically engaging with a cross-section of the current academic literature on this subject. Furthermore, the last section will offer a more pragmatic analysis of the possible directions in which Turkey-EU negotiations could be potentially taken. This will hopefully provide a coherent response to the reality that Turkey’s political, cultural and economical future, will not by any means, be less successful or promising, without full EU membership.


There is nothing “organic” about the way in which the modern Turkish republic came into existence. While it may be true that European modernity was the product of a centuries long industrialization process, a process influenced and fueled by revolutionary advancements in technological competence, the Turkish case is distinctly different. With the Ottoman Empire having suffered continued defeat “at the hands of the major European powers,” modernity came to be seen as the best possible defensive strategy, offering renewed military competence and in short, provide the solution to a lack-of-competitiveness problem. Initially, modernity was not a ubiquitous and omnipresent fact of life, but limited to the military.

It is not difficult to conceptualize why the Ottoman Empire opted for modernity as a way of staying competitive among the other European powers and empires, of the 18th and 19th centuries. A modern army, however, also requires modern institutions to “train military officers and to offer medical services to military men.” Schools were added for the purpose of training these officers. In addition, “capable administrators who could, among other functions, develop reliable systems for drafting soldiers and collecting taxes,” soon followed, for the following reason. The Ottoman war-machine required a systematic approach to the administration of public and natural resources, as well as the human capital required to make it all possible. One caveat however, does exist. While new and modern institutions that dealt with realizing the primary objective of increasing the overall effectiveness of the military were being erected, traditional institutions, such as the medreses (schools charged with transmitting Islamic theology and religious law) were still in operation and often stood in contradiction with their modern counterparts.

It is at this point in the history of the Ottoman Empire, that a distinction can be made between a modern interpretation and a more traditional understanding of state governance. Modernity in pre-republican Turkey benefited a select few and alienated many, unemployment being the major pathology of modernity in 19th century. Because of this exclusionary effect, the modern Ottoman Empire came to antagonize those individuals who entertained more traditional approaches. Those who had been brought up and schooled under modern institutions “became aware of the backwardness” of their society. With the end of the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, modernization reforms became possible. Justified by the inefficacy of the old regime, the Republic People’s Party (RPP), led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, institutionalized modernity in 1923, by establishing the Turkish republic.

Secular Kemalism has been a predominant feature of Turkish politics, a point of constant contention that often found Turkey under great political turmoil, instability and uncertainty. Between 1923 and 1946, Turkey operated under a single party system. The RPP was “the original tutelary single party that was associated with the founding of the republic and the westernizing reforms of Ataturk.” RPP reforms were particularly intrusive, repressive and designed by the Kemalist state elites to “keep society under control and realize change through state action.” As already mentioned, these state elites, having been brought up and trained under modern institutions and schools, felt justified in being the ones to guide a backward society. The only way this was possible in their view, was to adopt a doctrine of “security maximization,” using as many top-down authoritarian measures as deemed necessary.

Turkey held elections in 1946 and in 1950, “power changed hands peacefully.” Celal Bayar, a private banker, became Turkey’s president. This is often referred to as the inflection point in Turkish politics, as with the end of one-party rule “came a distinction between the state elites of military leaders and bureaucrats and the political elites represented by elected officers.” As it was the case in the past, the tension between those state elites who subscribed to secularism and nationalism as a way of reinforcing Turkey’s interest to remain internationally competitive, and the political elites who were more sensitive to electoral impulses, reemerged from a period of dormancy. However, more important was Turkey’s shift from the previous paradigm of “security maximization,” to one of “prosperity maximization.” Democracy, for the newly elected political elites in power, was seen as the only legitimate way of catering to the “wishes of the people.”

However, the prospect of democratic consolidation was cut short in 1960 when the military intervened by means of a coup d’etat. In 1980, the military intervened once again, this time imposing the dissolution of all political parties. To fill in the newly created void, the military tried to impose a two-party system that although was favoured by military commanders, failed to materialize. The 1971 forced change in government by the military, acts as a further example of the instability of Turkish politics in the past.

Ilter Turan argues that there needs to be a reassessment of the extent to which politics in Turkey has really been a stable undertaking. While the current Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer is himself a state elite and staunch advocate of “strict secularism and absolute national sovereignty,” the Turkish Prime Minister is less divorced from electoral politics. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey’s PM and while his party, the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) are comfortable in power, with a majority of seats in parliament under their control, it is doubtful whether the up and coming presidential elections, in May of 2007, will see Erdogan succeed Sezer.

Turkey-EU Relations Background

Turkey signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 1963. In 1987 Turkey applied for EU membership but was rejected in 1987 due to a lack of economic development, a political and civil rights deficit, and a chronic unemployment rate that was considered to destabilize EU markets. In 1995, a Customs Agreement was negotiated and signed, followed by the EU Commission’s decision in 1997, at the Luxembourg summit, to not grant candidate status to Turkey. However, new membership talks started once again in 1999. While Turkey was invited in 1999 by the European Council in Helsinki to join the CEEC (Central and Eastern European Countries) candidates, the European Commission refused to “set up a timetable for starting accession talks.” Once again, the lack of political and economic reform was cited as having been the impetus driving the decision to refrain from taking the revolutionary step of accepting Turkey into the European club.

While Turkey reopened negations with the EU, after significant political, civil and legal reforms had been implemented, the EU had once again made its position clear: that “Turkey would have to be in full formal compliance with the Copenhagen criteria,” as adopted at the EU summit in Denmark in 1993, if it is to be considered. The primary features of this Copenhagen criteria ask that Turkey “(i) be a stable democracy, respecting human rights, the rule of law and the protection of minorities, have (ii) a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with the competitive pressures and market forces within the Union and (iii) adopt the common rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law,” (also known as the acquis communitaire). As it currently stands, Turkey will have to wait until 2014 (at the earliest), before being given the green light to accede.

Secularism Unpacked

It could be argued that multiculturalism is no longer an example of successful policy in some European countries. While violence has nonetheless been a prominent feature of events in France, Germany and the Netherlands, violence alone says little about the underlying tensions causing it. What may perhaps help bridge the gap between cause and effect is a discussion of the role of religion in the public affairs of the state. Reality in Europe dictates that “ambiguity and ambivalence embedded in the connection between religion and secular European modernity,” is actually indicative of the “far from settled” interconnections between “religion, secularism and multiculturalism.”

Fuat Keyman asks us to revisit Turkey’s secular past and be conscious of the challenge Islam “and its powerful symbolic and cultural role,” has constantly posed to Turkish Kemalist secularism. Keyman is a proponent of Turkish-EU integration. However, this is not what matters. His analysis of secularism leads him to observe that while authoritarian secularism in Turkey was successfully institutionalized so as to maintain an objective “social-structural process,” this was only half the battle. An assumption that secularism is an inherent corollary of modernity, and that private individuals will proportionally adopt rational interpretations of their surroundings, the more acute modernity becomes, failed. In fact, the opposite of this has happened. Islam in Turkey, never having fully been discarded by private citizens, acted as the paradigm in which uncertainty was made more certain. Although Turkish history is dominated by laicist repression of religious manifestations, both in public and private life, it also speaks of the “inability to respond to the various Islamic identity claims to recognition and cultural-group rights.”

The tension between Turkish state elites, committed to maintaining secularism, and political elites, more sensitive to the identity claims and cultural-group rights of their respective electorate, has recently become more apparent. The European Union’s hesitant response to Turkish-EU accession negotiations however, has actually more to do with Europe than Turkey. This irony is made clear by Elizabeth Hurd when she argues that the latest strand of Turkish secularism, neither traditional laicism (or Kemalism, a version of laicism), nor “Judeo-Christian” secularism, “threatens not only the Kemalist establishment in Turkey but European secularists as well.” Furthermore, the implications of this phenomenon are such that “Turkey’s potential accession to the EU has propelled the controversial question of what it means to be both ‘secular’ and ‘European’ into the public spotlight.” In other words, questions of the role of religion in politics, previously perceived to have been historically resolved, have reappeared. However, as Hurd approximates Keyman when she says that the reasons why such questions have been awoken from a prolonged period of subdued dormancy, have everything to do with the fact that approaches to religion and to religious minorities, are not “set in stone but must be constantly renegotiated.”

Hurd outlines the paradigms in which both European secularists and European exclusivists (read: Judeo-Christian secularists) operate. The ethnocentric biases are beyond obvious. For Judeo-Christians, “secularist separation of religion from politics,” is a unique “Western achievement that is superior to its non-Western rivals.” Furthermore, the inability of “others,” non Judeo-Christians to transcend these fixed definitional presuppositions, disables Islamic societies to fully realize true secularism. Inclusive European laicists or secularists are equally biased and ethnocentric. This line of argument maintains that Turkey only differs “from Europe solely in terms of acquired characteristics.” Turkish accession to the EU will only be made possible when these “shortcomings,” will be “overcome through the importation of Western-style democracy and the secularization of politics and society.”

When the introduction mentioned that France would completely miss the point, if it would leave the question of whether Turkey should or should not join the EU, to its electorate, it was not by any means an attack on democratic principle of majoritarian politics. It was actually a criticism of the lack-of democratic sensitivities in France, to those cultural and religious minorities within their own borders. The shift currently taking place in Turkey, while framed as an erosion of secularism by some, is actually becoming more sensitive to actual electoral and political realities. This is not to say that Turkey is a textbook example of how a perfect democracy should be. To make such an argument would be a mistake. However, and as Hurd herself leaves open to interpretation, secularism is a social construct that can be broken down, contested and reconstructed. Perhaps Hurd’s most crucial contribution comes at the end of her article, when she makes it explicit that, notwithstanding her main argument that Europe would have to revisit its own understanding of secularism (before Turkish integration into the EU will be successful),

If Europe cannot be articulated in terms of complex space and complex time that allow for multiple ways of life (and not merely multiple identities) to flourish, it may be fated to be no more than the common market of an imperial civilization, always anxious about (Muslim) exiles within its gates and (Muslim) barbarians beyond.

John Redmond makes it explicit that if Turkey is to join, it must do so as a full member. Anything less than full membership is worrisome for the following reasons. First, Turkey would not have access to the EU single market, thereby making the economic benefits of integration political (and for security purposes) only. Second, there would be a lack of structural funds flowing from the European Union to Turkey. Third, the most important reason of all, Turkey would have “no seat at the EU decision-making table.” It is important to ask the question of why Turkey would even be considered as a second-class member. The main argument for this however is unfortunately one designed with populist politics in mind and not something premised on a more cogent line of reasoning.

To quote Redmond, Turkey is still “seen as an outsider to the European mainstream, condemned to irresolvable difference from its western neighbours on historical, religious and cultural grounds.” The general European public finds Turkey to be “too big, too poor, too far away and too Islamic.” In other words, Turkey does not fit into the social construct that goes by the name of “Europeanness.” Redmond himself points out that this is but “a ludicrous concept,” a distraction from factual reality that speaks of the purpose of EU integration as still being “predominantly economic.” However, Turkish economics and the success of organizations such as MUSIAD (Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association) have proved that Islam is compatible with market-based economies and the democratic tendencies that follow as by-products of such markets.


Mousseau presents his argument in a rather straightforward way. Corruption and little respect for law are both cushioned between “collective, traditional and social associations for income” and “state-led, feudal or command economies.” Contracts bind individuals and create “cooperation, compromise and tolerance of different interests.” Individuals have an interest in maintaining the rule of law so as to protect these agreements or contracts between them. When disagreements surface, the state intervenes and acts as a dispute resolution mechanism. Limiting the role of the state in this sense would therefore require a thin understanding of a liberal democracy.

However, a duality exists between maintaining state neutrality both in politics and economic endeavors on one hand, and the establishing of electorally sensitive political parties. The rise of the Turkish private sector during the 1980s and 1990s, has replaced “Turkey’s clientalist politics with the market and rule of law.” If one is to entertain Mousseau’s argument, that market economies and the opportunities attached to them, will eventually and naturally lead Turkey to adopt Western-style civil-rights and democracy, then the reality that culturally and traditionally loaded Islamic capitalism can succeed and has succeeded, fails to be recognized as an alternative mean to a similar end.


Part I

There are a few scenarios that could unfold. The first is that Turkey will not end up joining the European Union. However, this would offer more costs than benefits for a few reasons. One such reason is that the current public antagonism towards Turkey and Islam will only become more acrimonious. The dehumanization and disconnection between the EU (read: the West) and Turkey (read: the East) cannot possibly have any positive consequences. Turkey is not Europe’s or the West’s enemy. Islam is not incompatible with democracy and it certainly isn’t incompatible with market-based liberal economies.

The duality that is found in the EU’s acquis communitaire is indicative of the double standards of such institution. While the EU’s Copenhagen criteria may push turkey towards maintaining the current secularist status-quo, this is simply unacceptable if Turkey is also to develop an electorally sensitive democracy. Religion, and more importantly, Islam, has and will continue to dominate both private and increasingly as of late, public life. As it has been pointed out before, secularism is a construct that is constantly being reinterpreted to keep in-sync with the dynamic complexities of change. In other words, the ethnocentric features of EU’s integration process is borderline imperialistic, failing to address local and regional uniqueness and even more worryingly, as is the case in Turkey, inadvertently preventing democracy fundamentals from taking root. It is precisely because of this, that Turkey’s future cannot be said to be less certain or more bleak as a result of not having been made a full member of the European Union.

However, if Turkey is to join the European Union, this will need to be more than just a mechanical and technical process. Europe, as was the point of some of the authors discussed, must engage in redefining for themselves the role of religion in society and the extent to which secularism is but a superficial and ignorant misunderstanding of the more bona fide realities of pragmatic politics. Sure Turkey will have access to structural funds, the promising EU single-market and a seat at the decision-making table. This unfortunately does not suffice. Market-oriented economics and the contracts that provides the glue that holds it all together simply cannot function if the European courts put in charge of arbitrating contract disputes, cloak their bias towards EU parties in rhetoric that dehumanizes Islam by maintaining the “us” (read: the West, the good) versus “them” (read: the East, the bad, the enemies) paradigm.

Part II

Seeing Islam as a problem in need of a solution is also particularly problematic. The questions of whether the European Union is engaged in an economic integration exercise, or in a political and ideological one, is arguable. There is a sense that Islam belongs to a crude, unjust and barbaric past, incompatible with a more modern understanding of secular democracy and rationally founded and sound public policy. However, the sophisticated present, with all its modern bells and whistles, has not yet been fully successful at creating electorally sensitive political parties, nor has it yet been entirely successful at completely eschewing religion from the subjective life of private individuals. This is true for both Europe and Turkey.

Although not entirely part of the scope of this paper, racial and cultural discrimination and distinctions are arguably corollaries of a wider accepted gamut of scientifically derived, and culturally based, evaluations of what is and isn’t rational. In addition to this, public awareness and public scrutiny of social and cultural constructs may not be sufficient to safeguard from the potential pathologies of the imperialist nature of Western rationality. A further dimension is required, one that asks the electorate in both Turkey and Europe to critically engage, debate and discuss the possible effects of a Turkey-EU integration, or the lack thereof.


Turkey’s democracy is moving towards becoming more electorally responsive and, contrary to the more ominous suspicions of some of its critics, not relapsing into a tyrannical display of Islamic authoritarianism. A wider recognition of human rights as they apply both to minorities as well as dominant cultural and religious groups, will naturally follow as a result of this. However, the key catalyst providing the impetus for the aforementioned, as argued by Mousseau, is the introduction of a liberal market economy and the possibility for economic opportunities that, albeit loaded with Islamic traditional values of community and reciprocal trust, produce beneficial results and allows for the further development and subsequent consolidation Turkey’s democracy.

Future relations between the West and East, the European Union and Turkey, will depend on both European reevaluations of the role of religion and secularist constructs, as well as on future Turkish advancements towards a more open society, sensitive to unique regional cultural minorities and majorities. However, if the EU persists on applying its conditions for membership through a top-down approach, as if to say that only Western modernity and rationality is democratic, Turkey will simply end up with having swapped the Kemalist state elites, one hegemon, for another, the EU technocrats. This dilemma forms a paradox that is missing from current debates on Turkish-EU affairs; one that needs to be further studied, discussed and appreciated.

Vlad Popescu


1 Comment

Filed under ataturk, bureaucracy, critical, critique, democracy, elitism, EU, european union, integration, kemalism, laicism, majoritarian, multiculturalism, politics, secularism, turkey

One response to “On the Question of Turkey-EU Membership: Yes, No, and Everything in Between [full post]

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