dinsdag 21 september 2010

After the Referendum: Turkey Headed Toward EU Membership

(This article first appeared on September 17, 2010, in the Dutch version Turkije in de EU: een belangrijke aanwinst".)

In last week’s referendum, a clear majority of Turkish voters accepted 26 reform proposals to improve democratic rule in Turkey. With a solution of the Kurd and Cyprus issues, this paves the way for Turkey to join the EU. This development should be applauded.

Turkey, a country which since 1962 attempts to join the European Union, is little known and understood in the West. It is unfortunate that the September 12 referendum on a new constitution has generated little interest here. Its result is an important indicator of the path Turkey intends to take, as it moves away from a government dominated by the army toward becoming a Western style democracy. Today, the Turkish military is not subject to civil jurisdiction. And - under pressure from the generals - the judiciary can outlaw any religious or separatist political party that it deems a threat to the military model of a secular state.

In the referendum, organized by the moderate Islamic Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, voters were asked to approve of the option to try the military in civilian courts and to transfer the right to ban political parties to parliament. Erdogan's opponents see in the proposed reforms a hidden agenda to overthrow the secular state established by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey in 1920 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Although Erdogan is religious, there is no evidence of anti-democratic intentions on his part. On the contrary, most initiatives of the Prime Minister, such as consultations with Kurdish separatists, were far better than the oppressive policies of his more secular predecessors.

Turkey's accession to the European Union merits support. Anchored in the West, the country would be a significant acquisition demographically, as well as in security and in geopolitical terms. This vision however is scarcely shared in Europe. Some objections are based on racism and Islamophobia. Other opposition is better founded: Europe should not compromise on democracy and human rights to allow Turkey’s entry. These concerns are largely appeased by the referendum: 58% of the Turkish electorate voted for the package of 26 constitutional amendments. These provide for an expansion of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, strengthening of the right to equality, privacy, collective bargaining and child protection, expansion of the jurisdiction of civilian courts over military courts, and abolishment of the immunity of the junta that ruled Turkey following the military coup of 1980.

Despite his success in the referendum, Erdogan's opponents keep insisting that these measures polarize Turkish society. The new appointment procedures would allow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to acquire control over the judiciary. The fear that the AKP intends to transform Turkey into a radical Islamic state seems unfounded. Erdogan, who was still critical of the EU and NATO as recently as the 1990s, has changed his mind. Today, one should judge him on the basis of what he has achieved since taking office. And that is indeed impressive. In a country with a long tradition of repression and coups, a small revolution has taken place, in a democratic fashion and without causing bloodshed. A system that had been ruled since 1960 by judges and generals, is being reformed by democratic means. The result of the referendum was a boost for the stock market, raising expectations there, based on the assumption that the AKP now has a good chance of winning a third term in 2012.

Turkey is making progress in its foreign policy as well, whether the EU opens the door or not. Traditional rivals like Russia and Iran are particularly pleased with the mediating role Turkey plays in the region. Since the incident with the aid convoy, Turkey has actively championed the Palestinians besieged in Gaza, while keeping its relations with Israel intact. The changes to its democratic and economic governance allow Turkey not only to take steps towards Europe, but also to strengthen its relationships in the Middle East. This is a development that should be welcomed.

But Turkey has still to resolve a number of matters. With 42% of respondents having voted against the reforms, many ideological divisions must still be overcome. The referendum has paved the way for a new constitution, and Prime Minister Erdogan seems determined to push it through parliament during the coming months. To this end, he will have to achieve a consensus on the 26 reform proposals at issue in the referendum, and on political reforms to promote Turkey’s chances of joining the EU. He must also solve the Cyprus issue and grant the Kurds greater rights. These are key challenges for all involved. Reaching a consensus in Turkey has always been difficult, but given the today’s challenges, this task is one of increasing urgency. Europe can stimulate this process by continuing to offer Turkey full membership.

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