How Turkey lost its shot at the European Union.

How Turkey lost its shot at the European Union.

How Turkey lost its shot at the European Union.

The British scene.
May 2 2007 4:54 PM

Fried Turkey

How it lost its shot at the European Union.

Abdullah Gul. Click image to expand.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul

In Istanbul last Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the nomination of Abdullah Gul as president of Turkey. In Paris next Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy will very likely be elected president of France. These two events are geographically distant but closely connected in political terms. Together they explain a bald fact of life: Turkey is not going to join the European Union. And they also illustrate one more contradiction—and failure—of the neoconservative project.

Those protests were one stage in what is now a full-scale political crisis. The volume was then turned up on Tuesday when the highest court in Turkey blocked Gul's candidacy. With the stock market plummeting, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he might call an election next month instead of the fall, as scheduled. All this because of a headscarf.


Almost all Turks are Muslims, but since Ataturk created the modern Turkish republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, its basic principle has been secularism. This was rigidly enforced by the "deep state" (as the Turks say—and what a good phrase it is, not just there) that really rules the country whether or not government has been ostensibly democratic, as at present, and by the army, the central national institution. There was a time when democracy, pluralism, and secularism looked almost healthy in Turkey, but for years they have been lapped by a rising Islamic tide that could yet submerge Ataturk's republic.

This has happened through the ballot box. Democracy is a fine thing, except when it goes wrong: when too many Germans vote for Hitler or too many Turks for the AKP (known in English as the Justice and Development Party). That Islamic party brought Erdogan to power, and he in turn nominated Gul, the foreign minister, as president. Gul is a moderate Islamist as these things go, but the sight of his devout wife in a headscarf inflames those who keep the true Ataturkist faith, above all the army, which precipitated the present crisis by threatening to block Gul's appointment. Behind that is a veiled threat of one more military coup.

In France, the governing principle since the Third Republic hasn't been just secularism but laicism, an almost aggressively irreligious state, and it was logical enough for the French to try to outlaw Muslim headscarves in their own schools. The controversy this provoked reminded France that these days at least one-tenth of its younger citizens are Muslims. And that was grist to Sarkozy's mill: Without quite resorting to the coarsest xenophobia or Muslim-baiting, the language he used to win 30 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting was decidedly more brutal than emollient.

Across France, posters of Sarko have been adorned with Hitler mustaches by left-wing graffiti artists. As if that terrible warning weren't enough, his opponents have made another shocking charge: Sarkozy is "an American neoconservative with a French passport," and it says something about the climate of opinion in Europe that "neocon" and "Nazi" are now insults of roughly equal weight.


He is, of course, nothing of the kind. No néoconservateur français, if there is such a species, could possibly reach the Elysée Palace. To be sure, Sarko has been telling the French to get a grip, to face up to the challenge of globalization, and to try working a little harder. The left still venerate the French high-protection welfare state, or "social model," to which Sarko replies that it's scarcely social with unemployment still near 10 percent, and it isn't a model at all since no one else wants to emulate it.  

And yet just how little of a true neocon he is can be seen by the fact that Sarkozy is the first leading politician in any large European country to say loudly and clearly that Turkey will not join the European Union. The neoconservative platform has several planks: the Iraq war (at any rate before it went awry) and the larger scheme of democratizing the Middle East; strong support for Israel; and, far from least, ardent advocacy of Turkish admission to the European Union. Such American advocates have done Turkey no good at all, I might add: Every time George W. Bush in the White House or Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times demands that Turkey should be admitted, the Turkish case is set back further. After serving as a Tory Cabinet minister in London and then as the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten became a European commissioner before returning home as chancellor of Oxford University. A few years ago, he was expressing the irritation of all his colleagues in Brussels—and every European politician—when he said dryly that it was very good of the Americans to keep offering Turkey EU membership, but that this was a question on which the Europeans themselves might feel they had some right to be heard.

No one would agree more strongly with that than Sarkozy. And although he has moderated the overt hostility toward America displayed by Jacques Chirac, the man he hopes to succeed, he would also agree with Chirac that it is no more the American president's business to tell Europe how to deal with Turkey than it's the French president's business to tell the White House how to deal with Mexico. Sarko doesn't even need to spell out the immense economic and social problems that Turkish membership would present. He only has to say that admitting Turkey would be a mistake, and he is saying something that a large majority of voters in France, and most other European countries, already think.

Not only Washington and Tony Blair—who really is an American neoconservative with a British passport—but also many other well-meaning people have made what could be called an ulterior case for Turkish membership. In a generally thoughtful Financial Times column, Gideon Rachman repeats the conventional wisdom: "The keystone of [European] efforts to prop up secular democracy in the Islamic world is the offer to admit Turkey to the EU. But Europe's obvious reluctance to live up to this promise has antagonised Turks of all persuasions."

Which is all very well, but when did propping up secular democracy in the Islamic world become the purpose of the European Union? From the original signatories of the Treaty of Rome just over 50 years ago until today, the leaders of Europe have seen their task as encouraging democratic peace and prosperity—in Europe, not in Western Asia or further afield. It would no doubt be nice if the United States could encourage democracy and economic growth in Latin America, but that was not and is not the purpose of the country created by the U.S. Constitution.

In any case, the Turks have been antagonized by more than this European backsliding. Washington has made life much more difficult—and the neocons have exposed another of their project's internal contradictions. They admire, or admired, Turkey as a secular state (and as a friend, or non-enemy, of Israel). But the invasion of Iraq angered all Muslims, including  the Turks, while the encouragement of Kurdish secession that has been one of the consequences of the Iraq enterprise has gone beyond anger and turned Turkey. Opinion there has turned, that's to say, more sharply against America than for many years past, since a distaste for their own Kurdish secessionists unites most Turks, left and right, Islamist or secular.

So, we have a Europe growing ever more suspicious of Islamism or even of Muslims, regrettably but not surprisingly after sundry events from Sept. 11, to riots in France, to the conviction in London on Monday of five Muslim terrorists. For its part, Turkey draws away resentfully from the West. And those who direct U.S. policy are further than ever from their objectives. You might call it a vicious circle of unintended consequences—and another fine mess.