Serap Isiklar is an alumnus of the College of Europe working for the Istanbul Chamber of Industry. She addressed the Natolin students of the 2007/2008 promotion during their study trip to Istanbul at the beginning of November on the subject Business environment reforms in Turkey on the way to EU membership.
© Serap Isiklar
Turkey“s relationship with the EU has always been the project of the elite but never of the public as is the case in many EU countries. It was always taken for granted that public opinion would be in favour of the EU. In one of the Eurobarometer surveys (i.e. the one in 2003), Turkish people declared around 75% support for accession to the EU. However, when they were asked about the meaning of the EU membership/citizenship they mentioned, better life standards, better education opportunities, finding better jobs etc with accompanying fears such as becoming Christian, loosing Turkish language and being obliged to speak English and loosing Turkish Lira in favour of Euro etc. The same fears could be expressed on behalf of the EU citizens about Turkey”s membership. They are scared of 70 million Muslims becoming EU members who seem to refuse to integrate the European societies they reside.
It is not difficult to understand both sides. For Turks, EU is identified with countries such as Germany and France where relatives of many seem to live under very good conditions. Ironic enough, Turks in Germany, Netherlands and France live within Turkish colonies and not really get into touch with the nationals of these countries, while only mentioning the good sides of living there. They never mention that they are living as “others” in these countries. That they are surrounded by heavy Turkish traditions imposed by the colonies they live in. That they are much more conservative than Turks living in Turkey.
The public opinion on the EU side is shaped with the Turks living in Europe. That they are very conservative, traditional and religious; they do not integrate with the society; they do not even speak the languages of the countries where they obtained citizenship, and they force their children to marry with an acquaintance from Turkey. The elites of the big cities in Turkey and the governments refused to see this fact for a very long time until it became a real issue on the way for the membership. Today, Turkish government and pro-EU elite realised the importance of Turkish minorities living in Europe and that they were the reflection of Turkish society in Europe. They expect the European societies to show them the tolerance which they themselves refuse to show for their own citizens.
The EU is not an important agenda for Turkish people anymore. It is rather a long story of disappointment. Turkish people are tired of fast and loose game as it has been played for years now. This disappointment was at the highest point when Greek part of Cyprus was accepted as an EU member and that 8 negotiation chapters were frozen, again because of the Cyprus problem. Every one of two people on the street would call the EU as double-faced, even among the pro-EU elites. Recent membership of ex-communist countries such as Poland and Hungary and also early membership of Bulgaria and Romania have been the kind of insult for a country of the permanent waiting list. It is too much of a game for such a proud society. The public support for the EU has fallen to below 50%. The other 50% still hope for a better life at an unknown time when Turkey becomes an EU member.
There is also another belief among Turkish people that, when the EU is ready to accept Turkey, it will be Turks to say “No” as the EU itself will no longer be an attraction. The rise of nationalism in Turkey is fed by the anti-EU policies of the extreme right parties. A coinciding nationalism in EU countries such as Netherlands, Germany and France make it impossible to bring these two poles together. There is also a misperception among the Europeans about Turkish people. They formulate an idea of the whole nation with some hundred thousands of Turks living in their countries. When they go to Turkey, it is only for cheap vacation. They do not want to learn about where they are; they prefer staying in holiday clubs and fly back.
Turkey has long attached itself to the EU dream and now it is tired of waiting at the door. Besides the general pride in the country, many reforms have been achieved thanks to the efforts and majority power of the AKP government. Some very peculiar areas have been touched such as abolition of death penalty, freedom of learning minority languages such as Kurdish and many more. There have been a large number of changes in a very short time. It has only been done for the sake of EU accession. Today it is up to the EU to decide where Turkey should be and what EU itself stands for. EU could come up with many proposals such as that of Merkel and Sarkozy. Hopefully, Mr. Sarkozy made all of his calculations for a “Non” answer from Turkey. At the end of the day, Turkey has attached itself to the Union for more than 10 years now where it has no decision making power. Nobody should expect that Turkey will make all the efforts to align itself to the EU and finally accept a privileged membership or Mediterranean neighbourhood solution. EU states should be decent and brave enough to say that they will never want to see Turkey within the EU club. They should also make all the calculations as to what type of a neighbour they want to see at the southeast.
If the question is “How European is Turkey?”, the answer would be “as European as the Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians”. It is up to the EU to learn why and how.