As it is Thanksgiving weekend, it is natural that our thoughts turn to Turkey. The Turkish question has certainly occupied the minds of MEPs this week: on Thursday the European Parliament in Strasbourg (one of its two homes) voted overwhelmingly for a motion to suspend the process by which Turkey would become a full member of the European Union. As anyone who knows the EU is aware, the Parliament is impotent and unable to bind EU policy in this way. But the vote is indicative of the general view in Brussels of Turkey’s prospects for full membership.
The official line coming from Brussels is that this decision is a response to Erdogan’s repressive reaction to the attempted coup in July of this year. Since that time almost 100,000 civil servants have been removed from their jobs, accused of being followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen who is accused of masterminding the failed coup. Academics have been fired for holding his books in their private libraries; established newspapers have had their editorial staff and talent arrested on (apparently false) accusations of supporting the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organisation; the main pro-Kurdish Party, the HDP, has seen some of its’ main figures arrested, accused of having links to the PKK.
But is this really new? Erdogan was an openly Islamist mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, until he was stripped of his position and imprisoned for 4 months for inciting religious intolerance.
Although he moderated his public stance when he founded the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2001, the period of his premiership (2003-2014) and Presidency (2014-) has coincided with the re-assertion in Turkey of an increasingly socially conservative Islamic identity. The repression of dissident voices didn’t begin in July; it has been happening for years yet went on largely unreported by Western media, happy to have a ‘moderate’ ally in Erdogan.
This cannot all be attributed to Erdogan, as though it were a simple cause-and-effect. After all, Erdogan’s AKP have only been in power because they have been able to win elections.
The character of Turkey has been undergoing a slow cultural change, partly as a consequence of demographic trends. More affluent, secular liberal Muslims in the cosmopolitan centres of Ankara and Istanbul tend to have fewer children than their poorer,rural, more religious compatriots beyond the metropolis.
After a generation or two in which the more conservative Muslims have started to move back into the urban areas, the historically secular Turkey, held that way by a military willing to restrain any government which went too far, appears to be under threat.
The Turkish government, and its’ people, may well feel aggrieved at how they have been treated by the European Union. Although Turkey has been an associate member since 1963, the official application was only made in 1987. It was delayed on account of Turkey’s relative poverty, and the situation in Cyprus. But since then the European Union has changed. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the accession of the eastern European countries to EU membership has led to the self-recognition by a large part of the EU as itself a Christian community, to which the admission of a majority-Muslim country would be inimical.
Quite apart from that, Greece’s opposition would probably prevent Turkey from ever joining. The Turks are therefore right to feel resentful, at having been led to believe that membership was due, only to gradually realise that their application was never going to succeed.
The chief worry for Europe is the consequence of this on the migrant crisis. Since the deal reached between the EU and Turkey in March, the number of migrants reaching the Greek islands – or worse, dying in the sea – has fallen dramatically. Yet now Erdogan has reacted to Thursday’s vote, by suggesting that he might allow the flow of migrants to resume. We can hope that this is merely bluster, but the last 18 months has taught all of us not to get complacent.