On January 29, shortly after the Israeli offensive in Gaza, Erdogan attended the same panel discussion as Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. After Peres had the last word of the panel, Erdogan insisted on responding, including telling Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” The Prime Minister then stormed out of the panel, vowing never to return to Davos.
While such an action may come across as unsurprising after the Israeli offensive, it is nonetheless disappointing coming from the Middle Eastern country with perhaps the strongest relations with Israel. In making such remarks, Turkey damages its important position as the natural mediator between the West and the Middle East. Worse, it is simply the latest indicator of Turkey’s moves away from a secular state under the Justice and Development Party, the AK Party (AKP).
According to Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in his February 2 article in The Washington Post, Turkey became the only European country to ban access to YouTube. Moreover, the UN Development Program ranks Turkey lower than Saudi Arabia in women’s empowerment since the AKP came to power. Journalists have been punished for criticizing the state. Perhaps most interestingly, the AKP lifted the ban on headscarves in all Turkish universities in 2007, and consequently came into a constitutional conflict for anti-secular activities that risked a ban on the party. While a majority of the Turkey’s top court found the AKP guilty, it fell one vote shy of banning Turkey’s predominant political force.
One week after Erdogan’s comments in Davos, the Stanford-in-Berlin Program traveled to Istanbul on its quarterly trip sponsored by Stanford alumnus H. George Will to meet with experts on Turkish relations with the European Union and the United States. Dr. Ulrich Brückner, Jean Monnet Professor for European Studies at the Free University and Stanford University in Berlin, organized the trip, and outlined Turkey’s strategic importance.
“Turkey can become a security and stability provider for the whole region. It can help to reduce the European dependency on Russian energy and it can be a role model of a secular, Western-type democracy and NATO member, [along] with the closest relations with the EU, the youngest population in Europe, and 99% Muslims.”
Many of Stanford’s featured speakers in Istanbul did not offer the brightest outlooks. In particular, one suggested that with four mayoral elections across Turkey this year, the AKP could establish complete control at all levels of government. Combining complete political control with rising anti-western sentiments, high unemployment, and poor economic forecasts, one analyst suggested Turkey would have all the necessary ingredients for a fascist state.
“It is not likely that Turkey will give up its Westernization process which [Republic of Turkey founder] Mustafa Kemal Atatürk initiated,” Dr. Brückner differed. “There is also not really an alternative, given the history and the interests of the country. But a weak Turkey is in nobody’s interest, since the state is already surrounded by several serious regional crises and millions of Turks already live in the EU.”
However, anti-secular moves create a vicious circle for European Union accession. When Turkey tries to enact anti-secular laws, it moves further away from meeting the qualifications necessary to join the EU. Yet the longer accession talks take, the more impatient Turks grow with the process, causing a majority of Turks today to oppose joining the EU. As Turkey moves further from the West, European Union membership may provide exactly the institutions it needs to commit itself to western, liberal democracy.
The European Union has a number of reasons to keep Turkey from full membership. Turkey would eventually become the largest member of the EU, risking popular support among Europeans for EU institutions. The European Union’s population would increase by 15%, while economic output would increase by only 3%. This would necessitate EU funds be diverted to Turkey at a time when budget projections through 2014 already look bleak. The EU’s borders would stretch to countries like Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, a particularly volatile part of the world. Turkey even refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Cyprus, alongside which Turkey would stand as a fellow member state.
That said, European Union membership provides a key strategic opportunity to ensure that Turkey remains a western-oriented country for the foreseeable future. While our ally drifts away, European institutions would guarantee that important alliance endures, thanks to the necessary domestic reforms that would be difficult to undo. European Union leaders need to rigorously recommit to Turkish accession talks, before it becomes too late. A Middle East with an unstable or fundamentalist Turkey is indeed a dangerous prospect.