Sarkozy, secularism and Turkey’s European future

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The current turmoil in Turkey may well be the vital test of its democracy that the EU has long been calling for, states Katinka Barysch – chief economist at the Centre for European Reform (CER). In a new paper, she claims that if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan succeeds in facing down the generals now, then future coups will become almost impossible.

The CER paper also argues that it is up to the Turkish people to find a solution to the impasse themselves, and that the turmoil could be a sign that Turkish democracy is maturing as the country undergoes a necessary “convulsion”. She claims that if Turkey emerges from the current crisis with its democratic credentials intact, then it will have taken a massive step towards convincing its critics that it has become a mainstream European country. She adds that should reforms be speeded up after the early parliamentary election, President Sarkozy would find it hard to argue in favour of ending Turkey’s accession process. 

However, Barysch remarks that the situation in the country appears desperate – with a stalled presidential election and the army threatening to intervene – as well as street protests involving millions, partially suspended EU negotiations, terrorism in the south-east that could prompt forays into northern Iraq and a new French president who is hostile to Turkish EU membership. 

She reminds us that the trouble began back in April following the nomination of the moderate Islamist Abdullah Gül for president – a role traditionally seen as the guardian of the secular order. This led the Constitutional Court to cancel the first-round vote. In response, the Erdogan government called early parliamentary elections for July, and pushed through constitutional changes that would allow the people to elect future presidents directly. 

The EU was right to remain silent as the crisis unfolded, believes Barysch – as it does not have much to say about the mix between religion and politics and would struggle to present a united front on the issue. However, she observes that enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn – and every member state – agrees that in a democracy the army cannot have the last say in politics. Another issue is the opposition of Sarkozy to Turkish membership, which – to Barysch – appears to be “heart-felt”. 

Meanwhile, following recent progress in several negotiation chapters, the Erdogan government released a plan in April that envisages the unilateral adoption of a broad range of EU laws by 2013 – which shows that progress is possible, argues Barysch. 

The paper concludes that the crisis has added an extra degree of realism and caution to an often overly emotional debate about accession, which it says is a good thing. It insists that Turkey must concentrate on resolving disagreements over the presidency while respecting democratic rules. 

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