Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why Turkey sits outside the tent

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (C) leaves after a wreath-laying ceremony with members of the High Military Council at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara on August 1, 2010.

By Christopher Caldwell

It cannot be easy finding the right words for a joint public appearance with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and prime minister David Cameron did not find them this week. European leaders have always seen Turkey as a “bridge” between the west and the Muslim world. But since the European Union opened negotiations with Turkey for full membership in 2005, Mr Erdogan has in many ways turned from the west. He has accused the Israeli government of war crimes while absolving the Sudanese government of them. He has accused Germany of “hatred” for Turkey, while his aides have cast doubt on the idea that Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme is meant to produce nuclear weapons.

For the EU, putting all the diplomatic eggs in the basket of Turkish accession has proved a mistake, damaging rather than consolidating relations. None of the European publics is keen on Turkish membership. The “bridge” role the west envisions for Turkey seems too modest for a country with the second largest army in Nato and the 16th biggest economy in the world. It is also condescending and outdated to assume that Turkey will happily convince its neighbours to water down their religion to the point where the bankrupt west no longer fears it. The result has been a stalemate in accession talks, marked by considerable hypocrisy. Mr Cameron set out this week to break that hypocrisy, and to enlist Britain on the side of Turkish membership.

With some exceptions, this entailed bringing Europe closer to Turkey rather than bringing Turkey closer to Europe. Mr Cameron’s remarks on Israel provide the most glaring example. He appears to believe that anti-Zionist machismo will win him the approval of “world opinion”. A legitimate argument can be had over whether (and why) the Gaza Strip resembles a “prison camp”, as Mr Cameron so provocatively put it, and whether the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara, part of a Turkish flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade in early June, was proportionate.

But a platform next to Mr Erdogan is the wrong place to have that argument. For the past two years, Mr Erdogan’s rhetoric on Israel has been demagogic rather than constructive. His Justice and Development party (AKP) rallied behind the flotilla’s sponsors, the Turkish foundation IHH. At a memorial service this spring Mr Erdogan said: “I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organisation.” After Mr Cameron described Israel’s raid as “completely unacceptable”, Mr Erdogan likened the raid to those of the Somali pirates.

To join Mr Erdogan in running down Israel risks giving his demagoguery a western imprimatur. When Mr Cameron says Turkey “shares our determination to fight terrorism in all its forms”, he is wrong. Mr Erdogan shares western worries about the bombs of al-Qaeda. He and the west part ways over the rockets of Hamas.

The main thrust of Mr Cameron’s argument – the part concerning Turkish EU membership – was marked by the same unwillingness to draw elementary distinctions. He alluded to Turkey’s role in protecting Nato from the Soviets during the cold war – as if that protection were not mutual, as if Turkey joined Nato out of philanthropic motives. “I believe it is just wrong to say that Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit in the tent,” he said. This is a non sequitur: a country can contract a military alliance without forging a political union.

In place of an argument for EU membership, Mr Cameron offered an alliterative string of epithets for those who oppose it. They are either “protectionist”, “polarised” or “prejudiced”. People with misgivings about admitting a Muslim country to Europe fall under the “prejudice” category. They “see no difference between real Islam and the distorted version peddled by extremists”, Mr Cameron says, and “they don’t understand the values that Islam shares with other religions like Christianity and Judaism ... ” Who are these straw men? Of course Europeans understand the difference between Islam and al-Qaeda. But they also understand that a people’s culture and traditions constitute its treasure – and that a self-respecting people will alter its traditions only with extreme reluctance. To worry that Turkish Muslims will be slow to adopt Europe’s ways is not “prejudice” against Islam, it is respect for it.

EU members have fresh reasons for caution about Turkey. The Lisbon treaty will expand qualified majority voting in the EU, with votes weighted according to population – and Turkey is big. The failure of the stability and growth pact to prevent internal real-exchange-rate fluctuations in the euro has made federalised fiscal policies and inter-country transfers more likely – and, despite its growth rates, Turkey is relatively poor.

On top of that, the accession process has unravelled part of what made Turkey a desirable candidate in the first place. The things Europeans liked about 20th-century Turkish society (the small public footprint of Islam, relative freedom for women, the availability of alcohol) rested on things Europeans professed not to like about Turkish politics (particularly the role of the army). Mr Erdogan is “westernising” Turkey politically – bringing more democracy and a more flexible constitution and driving the army out of the public square. But voters are using this new freedom to “easternise” the country socially. This means more Islam in political life, a more subordinate role for women and different alliances. Turks have every right to make these choices. But Europeans have reasons other than prejudice to prefer that they do so outside the EU.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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