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Cook: Despite Some European Qualms, Turkey Will Eventually Join the EU

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
October 5, 2004


Steven A. Cook, the Council’s leading Turkey expert, says there is little doubt that Turkeya Muslim nation of about 70 million people—will surmount remaining hurdles to membership in the 25-nation European Union (EU). The European Commission is expected to approve negotiations on Turkey’s membership this week, and European leaders are expected to follow suit in December.

But Cook, a Council next generation fellow, says that it will probably take at least a decade for these negotiations to conclude. He notes that, even though the current Turkish government has passed a series of economic and legal reforms needed to qualify for membership, they have yet to be implemented. And, he says, considerable anti-Turk sentiment lingers in several European nations.

Cook was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on October 5, 2004.

Bring us up to date on Turkey’s effort to join the European Union.

Since 1999, Turkey has been a formal candidate for membership in the European Union. It actually has a relationship with Europe going back to 1964, and in 1996, it signed a Customs Union Agreement with the EU. Since 1999, Turkey has been undertaking reforms [required for membership]. And since 2002, the new government, which has Islamist roots, began even more rapid reforms, which included deep institutional democratic changes to bring Turkey up to the level of the European Union. A report, which is coming out on October 6, contains a recommendation from the EU Commission to EU leaders on whether to open negotiations with Turkey for formal membership.

Can we assume there is a positive recommendation?

Absolutely. Turkey was told last week by the EU commissioner for enlargement, Gunter Verheugen, that a positive report is to be expected, and that’s because, since this government came to power in November 2002, it has accelerated its reform program. Turkey has undertaken some of the most difficult reforms that Turkey-watchers didn’t expect to happen for years and years to come.

What kind of reforms?

Turkey’s Kurdish minority can speak their own language, they can be taught in their own language, the Turkish broadcasting company broadcasts in Kurdish, the penal code has been revamped, and changes to the National Security Council have been made that attempt to limit the role of the military in the political system. It’s more difficult now to close down political parties. It’s more difficult now to ban a politician for a variety of transgressions, including speaking out against the government. Turkey has dramatically expanded personal and political freedoms over the course of just two short years. The commission recognizes this reform; they’ve made a positive report, and they want to see more implementation to come out of Turkey, but nevertheless they are going to recommend to the European Union leaders that they open negotiations with Turkey in 2005.

But it won’t be able to join for many years. Why can’t Turkey join now?

Even under the most optimistic scenario, it will take about a decade to get Turkey “in shape” to become a member of the European Union. Turkey is a very poor country—its per-capita annual income is about $3,000. There’s a tremendous disparity between Turkish incomes and average European incomes.

What is the average in Europe?

Twenty-two thousand dollars a year, something like that; it’s very high. The estimate is that Turkey will need about $55 billion in aid over the course of the next five to ten years in order to do the economic changes, the agricultural changes, all kinds of issues that are sensitive issues both in Europe and Turkey, to bring Turkey into line. In addition, even though these reforms have passed, the Turks need to go ahead and implement them. There’s a difference between passing the reforms and implementing the reforms. In 1995, a previous Turkish government went through a whole round of political reforms that were never implemented. The EU is going to be watching very carefully to see whether Turkey does its part, but let me say, no member that’s ever been given a date to start negotiating EU admission has ever ultimately been denied entry to the union.

How many countries are in the European Union now?

It’s recently been expanded to 25 [from 15]. With the addition of 10 new members, the union’s gotten poorer. One of the objections on the part of conservative politicians in Europe is that bringing Turkey, a poor country of 70 million Muslims into the union, makes the union overall more Muslim and certainly poorer per capita. Those are two of the stumbling blocks that Turkey will face in the December meeting when the EU leaders are to decide whether to proceed with negotiations with Turkey.

It ultimately has to be approved by all 25 EU countries. Are there countries openly opposed?

There are, and there are countries that support it and oppose it at the same time. For example, President Jacques Chirac of France has come out very publicly in support of Turkey’s membership, but he’s got problems even within his own party, which is actually deeply opposed to Turkey’s membership in the European Union. He’s trying to portray himself as a statesman in hopes that the Danes or the Austrians, who are openly opposed to Turkey’s membership, will veto Turkey’s entry.

What is the anti-Turkey argument?

This is a vast, poor, Muslim country that is [largely] in Asia, and in extending Europe’s borders to the eastern border of Turkey, Europe would then border Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It would be inviting the problem of Kurds into Europe. Since June, the [separatist] Kurdistan Workers’ Party has resumed its terrorism against the Turkish state, and these are all stumbling blocks. The report will say that implementation of the reforms is necessary, there are still economic concerns, there are still concerns—despite the important changes to the role of the military—that the military can influence the political system.

From Turkey’s point of view, what would change?

From a Turkish perspective—and from any analyst looking at it from a truly objective perspective—there’s no legal reason not to offer Turkey a date for negotiation and, at this point, to keep Turkey out of those negotiations. They’ve fulfilled every single one of the criteria that the European Union has set out for them. From their perspective, a cross section of society has different interests in joining the EU. The average Turk who looks across the water at Greece sees that Greece has become a wealthy country compared to Turkey, so the average Turk believes that Turkey will get into the EU and that everybody will become wealthy.

The elite business community clearly sees the advantage of Turkish business becoming part of a huge block of Europe. For the urban, intellectual, Western-oriented elite, this is all about their identity—they consider themselves European. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, wanted to lift Turkey to the level of civilization, and what he meant by “civilization” was European or Western civilization. This is ultimately an 85-year goal being fulfilled.

For the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, which is a party with Islamic roots, it means forging a Kemalist reformation from the outside. They can’t do it themselves from the inside, but this is a way of broadening political participation, ensuring freedom of expression, freedom of religion, things that this party says that it wants, which is an extraordinary change. Previous Islamist parties in Turkey have railed against the West, but the new generation of leaders—[Prime Minister] Tayyip Erdogan and [Foreign Minister] Abdullah Gul see Europe as the best hope for allowing Turkish conservative Muslims to pray, to express themselves, [practices that] previously have bumped up against the official secularism of the Turkish state. This is much different from the secularism we have here in the United States—it’s more akin to a French secularism. Here in the United States, everybody’s free to practice their religion however they want. In Turkish, there’s no word for “secularism” -- it’s laik, which comes from the French word laicite. The government in Turkey actually controls the institutions of religion, and that was a way to prevent religion from being expressed in political ways that would undermine the secular nature of the republic. The ruling party sees this as a way to forge greater religious and personal freedoms.

The United States supports Turkey joining?

Yes, but it’s a little more nuanced. The United States certainly supports Turkey joining the EU. Particularly since 9/11 and the problems that we’re having with the Muslim world, Turkey can be seen as a shining example of a Muslim democracy that can be part of the West. At the same time, I detect a certain amount of ambivalence among folks in Washington about this, because as Turkey moves closer to the EU, it necessarily, given political realities of today, will be moving away from the United States. For a long time, we could expect Turkey to line up shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States on almost every issue. That hasn’t happened. Certainly this was demonstrated during the Iraq war, when Turkey aligned itself with the French, the Germans, and the Belgians.

That of course was a major break in U.S.-Turkish relations. Was that a decision by the Turkish leadership to make themselves more amenable to the Europeans when it was clear that the French and Germans were going to lead the opposition?

I think the Turkish leadership found itself playing a very delicate game and trying to walk a very fine line. In fact, in the fateful vote in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, more members of the assembly voted for allowing American troops to transit through Turkey than those who voted against it, but they didn’t have a quorum. It wasn’t a “no” vote, but the effect was exactly the same. Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul had assured the United States that they would get the vote. They actually didn’t get the vote, and it was interpreted here in the United States as the Turkish government not wanting to walk in lockstep with the United States on Iraq.

In fact, 95 percent of the Turkish public opposed the war. Erdogan and Gul themselves were very ambivalent about the war. Our greatest constituency in Turkey, the Turkish military, was deeply opposed to this war. They didn’t want to create chaos on their borders because of the exigencies of the Kurdish issue for the Turkish military and the possibility that if Iraq spun out of control, the Kurds would go their own way in a post-invasion Iraq and declare their independence. That would have all kinds of implications for Turkey’s very large Kurdish population. Thus, the Turkish military didn’t intervene in this issue. People were expecting them to, but it was a misreading of the political situation.

If you’re a middle-class Turk, would your life change much one way or the other after EU membership?

No, I don’t think your life would change tremendously, although you’d be able to travel to Europe. This is one of the concerns that the European opposition to Turkey’s membership has, is that low-wage workers would flood into Europe. But Europe needs those workers. If you’re a middle-class Turk, your life isn’t going to change immediately, but the country itself is likely to prosper over time. Again, it is an identity issue for many Turks.

At the same time, let’s not exaggerate. I think about 70 to75 percent of Turks support membership in the EU, but there are people who believe that this is not the right way for Turkey to go, that this would be surrendering a certain amount of Turkish sovereignty to Brussels—which they certainly wouldn’t want to do, harking back to their proud Ottoman past and thinking about how Turkey is different from Europe. By and large, Turks support membership. Overall, it’s good for everyone. It will seal the historic rift between Europe and Turkey; it holds up the potential to bring the Kurdish issue to some sort of resolution, although that also contains some sort of risk.

I can’t end an interview on Turkey without talking about Cyprus. What’s that status of the bitter dispute between the Turkish and Greek residents of that divided island?

Cyprus is very interesting. There was recently a referendum on whether to reunify the island, and everybody for years saw the Turks as the recalcitrant party in the controversy over Cyprus. In fact, the Turkish government completely reversed its position on Cyprus. It was forthcoming in negotiations running up to this referendum, and in fact, the Turkish population voted overwhelmingly for reunification, whereas the Greeks narrowly voted against reunification. The Turkish government was forthcoming on a range of issues that they hadn’t been forthcoming on before, and the Greek-Cypriot part of the island couldn’t overcome their reluctance to reunify the island.

Why did the Greeks refuse to endorse the agreement? Are they doing better economically and didn’t want to join?

There’s a variety of issues, but, to my mind, the key issue to Greek Cypriots was that it was going to be two equal parts, and the Greeks are actually the overwhelming majority in Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot side would have too much power on a reunified [island]. But the Turks of course were concerned that, prior to the invasion in 1974, they felt they were at the mercy of the Greek majority, and communal violence was one of the things that triggered the Turkish invasion in 1974.

So the status is in limbo?

Right now, the island remains divided, but in fact the Turkish-Cypriot vote in favor of reunification has broken the isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus [TRNC]. No government on the face of the planet save Ankara recognizes the existence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. No goods can come out of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that were stamped “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”; they had to transit through Turkey. You couldn’t even go to Greece if you had a TRNC stamp in your passport. The TRNC was completely isolated. The [Turkish Cypriots’] “yes” vote has broken that isolation and there is discussion within European councils about trade and direct transit links.