After an almost three-year hiatus, Turkey’s generals are flexing their political muscles once again. While EU officials are quite rightly critical of the military for its interference in politics, Brussels is itself to blame for the recent backsliding in Ankara.
In an extraordinary news conference recently, Turkey’s chief-of-staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, stated that a military incursion into northern Iraq was necessary to protect the country from terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, hiding out there, but that the proposed operation “required a political decision.” Speaking for Turkey’s senior-ranking officers, Buyukanit also indicated that the country’s next president, who will be elected in late April, must uphold the country’s secular system in “word and deed.” These statements were purposely intended to turn up the political heat on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist-oriented prime minister who reportedly covets the Turkish presidency.
Why blame the European Union for the officer’s thinly veiled efforts to undermine Erdogan? After all, the Turkish military has a long history of intervening in politics, including four coups between 1960 and 1997. Yet, it is important to understand the dynamic effect the European Union has had on the Turkish political system. The very prospect of Turkey’s EU membership has been nothing less than an anchor of economic and political reform.
The overwhelming popularity of the EU project among average Turks in 2003-2004 made it possible for Erdogan’s government to undertake a series of far-reaching political changes. The overall affect of these reforms was the development of a more open and democratic Turkey and a much diminished capacity for the military to meddle in politics. Indeed, by the end of 2004 when the EU commission recommended that membership negotiations with Ankara begin the following calendar year, Turkey was firmly on a liberal, democratic trajectory.
Just as the European Union was decisive in spurring Turkish reform a few years ago, Brussels is currently contributing to a return of some old and bad habits in Ankara. Over the last year, Turkey’s effort to join the Union has run into a number of obstacles. Some, like Turkey’s unwillingness to honor its EU commitments when it comes to relations with the Republic of Cyprus and Europe’s ongoing concerns about freedom of expression, are legitimate.
There is, however, another less tangible, though deep-seated problem with Turkey’s EU membership. Specifically, European publics and some of their leaders have sent Turks the unmistakable message that Turkey is not welcome in the Union on cultural and religious grounds. Unlike previous EU candidate countries—none of which were predominantly Muslim—Turkish membership will be put to a referendum in France. For its part, the German government has become increasingly interested in offering Turkey “a privileged partnership,” which amounts to little more than the current quality of Ankara’s relations with Brussels. Never mind the fact that Europe’s draft constitution was an unwieldy mess, many Turks (and Europeans) interpreted the document’s 2005 rejection in the Netherlands and France as a proxy for rebuffing Turkey’s prospective EU membership.
The consequence of European opposition to Turkey’s accession is a precipitous decline in support for Union membership among Turks. In 2004, some 77 percent of Turkey’s population favored taking the necessary steps to join Europe, now only 30 percent do so. Candidate countries often exhibit a drop in public enthusiasm for EU membership when their populations confront the reality of both abdicating some sovereignty to Brussels and the hard task of conforming to the Union’s laws, decrees, and norms. The fact that Europe’s opposition to Turkish membership is based on religious and cultural factors only accentuates this problem.
In Turkey, the negative signals from Europe and subsequent steep fall off in support for EU membership have provided the generals with room to maneuver in the political arena.
While in 2004 it was complicated to apply significant pressure on Erdogan due to the popularity of his EU reforms, the calculations of the commanders have changed as Turkey’s relations with Europe have cooled. With the prospect of Union membership seemingly in doubt, Turkey’s top officers have shrewdly determined that they have little to lose by playing politics.
This brings us back to General Buyukanit’s press conference. Prime Minister Erdogan may yet become Turkey’s next president. Should Erdogan take up residence at the Cankaya palace, he can expect to confront constant pressure and scrutiny from the military brass. The return of the Turkish military’s much-vaunted autonomy would provide additional weight to those in Europe who claim that Turkey is not a democracy and thus not ready to become a member of the European Union. Yet, for the naysayers in Europe, this unfortunate situation would be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy they helped to achieve.
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