Turkey's New Leader Recep Erdogan Takes the EU Bull by the Horns

By Gorvett, Jon | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Turkey's New Leader Recep Erdogan Takes the EU Bull by the Horns


Gorvett, Jon, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


With the country's new leaders charging off on one whistlestop European tour after another, these are exciting times for Turkey. Cyprus, the economy, even the political and state apparatus itself-suddenly all these issues seem wide open after years of frosty closure.

This new dynamism seems even more profound when contrasted with the inertia and party infighting which characterized the last days of the previous administration. While Bulent Ecevit's 57th government seemed old, cranky and stuck on decades-old agendas, Recip Tayyip Erdogan's 58th seems to be barreling along at breakneck speed.

Since winning the Nov. 3 general election with a landslide majority, Erdogan has been almost continuously airborne. There have been visits to Greece, Italy, Spain, Britain, Germany and Ireland all within the space of a few weeks-sometimes with several countries in one day-followed by a quick dash back to Ankara for a midnight press conference. It's the kind of pace Turkish leaderships don't seem to have exhibited since the death of the secular republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

As the old political adage warns, however, activity often can be a substitute for achievement, leaving many wondering just how much Turkey's new government really means to change things.

The primary impetus behind Erdogan's awesome accumulation of air miles has been the looming Dec. 12 deadline of the European Union's Copenhagen Summit, where EU leaders will gather to decide on the next round of enlargement. Most likely at the top of their agenda now will be a new eastern question-what to do about Turkey.

Although it has had official candidate status since the EU's Helsinki summit in December 1999, Turkey has been given no timeline for accession. As a result, Ankara has been pressing ever since for a date to start accession talks-opinion generally being that, once these talks begin, the EU is pretty much locked into eventually giving Turkey membership, even if the process takes several years.

So far, holding back the EU from giving such a date have been a variety of issues, ranging from the geostrategic to the quasi-historical. While Brussels' decisions usually are based on a good deal of hard economic number-crunching, in Turkey's case there seem to be a number of more emotional factors. These were well set out in early November by former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing, who made a speech saying Turkey was "not a European country," and that, while it should be given special status, it should never be allowed in. Doing so, he warned, might even "destroy the EU."

Much of this view seems based on an idea of Europe that sees it as an homogeneous cultural and even religious whole, a euphemism for that old Medieval term, "Christendom." As such, D'Estaing's view has some emotional impact, but clearly goes against the EU's own definitions of itself-which tend to be wary of "culture," and certainly make no reference to religion, instead favoring political and economic criteria. D'Estaing was officially criticized by the EU leadership, with many countries expressing condemnation of his views. Yet, if EU membership is open to all those who meet the economic and political criteria for membership, just where do its geographical boundaries lie? Indeed, can there ever be any such physical frontiers?

The Cyprus Question

Such questions explain some of the unease in Europe about Turkish membership. There also are more solid factors, however-one of which is Cyprus. The Greek Cypriot leadership in Nicosia is also heading for EU membership, with its accession talks almost over. All things being equal, it is set to join some time in 2004-whether or not there is a solution to the island's division. …

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