Clashes between protesters and the police have engulfed Istanbul for almost two months now. The conflict, which began as a reaction against the destruction of a park, has evolved into a symbolic struggle over the identity of modern Turkey, pitting European-oriented secularists against the moderate Islamist government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At stake in this battle is whether Turkey will continue to orient itself towards the West, or forge a path along Islamic principles.
With a recent poll that showing that two-thirds of Turks no longer favor EU membership, Turkey’s identity crisis may begin to impact its future in the EU. This represents a stark, but not surprising, shift for a country that has spent almost a century attempting to position itself as a European nation. Continued stalling on the part of the EU, which has long been hesitant to grant Turkey membership, and the ongoing Euro crisis have left once-optimistic Turks wary of Europe. This should be a wake-up call for the EU, which risks losing a potentially invaluable member.
Since the inception of the Turkish Republic in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has touted its European identity over its Islamic one. Modeling itself as a secular democracy, the young republic made every attempt to orient itself toward the West. In 1987, this posturing was made concrete in the form of a bid for admittance to the European Economic Community, a forerunner to the EU. Since the EU was founded in 1993, membership has been an almost universal ambition in Turkey, and has been supported by both secularist and Islamic parities. Even Erdogan, who was first elected in 2007, campaigned on a platform of EU membership.
This Turkish enthusiasm was never reciprocated by Europeans. Concerns over Turkey’s democratic credentials, Cyprus, and the Armenian genocide have always stood as roadblocks to the country's membership, and Turkey’s bid for EU membership remains largely unpopular among European citizens. Polls across the EU show that fears about Turkish immigration make Turkish accession a dangerous issue for European politicians. As a result, their default tactic has been diplomatic stalling.
Despite Turkey's frustration, the economic incentives of EU membership were always enough to continue the bid. However, the recent Euro crisis has altered this calculation, as the economic benefits of EU membership seem smaller every day, and members continue to experience a seemingly unending string of economic crises. To make matters worse, the United Kingdom, which is an essential member of the EU even though it's not part of the eurozone, has made moves to exit. Although we are past the worst of the crisis, the structural weaknesses of the EU have become apparent to the entire world.
Turkey, in contrast to the EU, has fared well through the financial crisis. None of its banks came close to collapse. Though the country's economy has experienced anemic growth as of late, it has avoided the roller coaster ride of its European neighbors. In short, the long-touted economic benefits of EU membership now seem questionable. At least for the present, it is not in Turkey’s best interest to bind itself to the Union economically.
While Erdogan and other Turkish leaders continue to advocate for EU membership, it is no longer clear that they will do so indefinitely. Turkey, despite the government's response to the recent unrest in Istanbul, is more democratic now than it has ever been. The once powerful military has been rendered toothless, and as in all democracies, the country's leaders can only withstand the tide of popular opinion for so long. The fact that two-thirds of Turkish citizens no longer support EU membership cannot be ignored. If the EU loses the support of the Turkish people, it will also lose Turkey.
In light of this, the EU and it leaders must realize that stalling Turkey’s membership is no longer an option. It must offer a genuine avenue for Turkey to gain membership. If it does not do so, it will squander an increasingly fleeting opportunity.
Beyond the benefits of its burgeoning economy, Turkey has much to offer the EU strategically. It can provide the EU with access to its army, which is substantially larger than those of most other EU members. It could also give the EU diplomatic access to the Middle East; since the Arab Spring, Turkey has become an influential leader in the region. Additionally, by endorsing a moderate Islamic democracy, the EU will encourage other nations in the Middle East to follow Turkey's example. Since the political identity of the region remains uncertain, this has the potential to pay huge dividends in the future.
This argument does not suggest that the EU should ignore the recent crackdowns on protesters. It would be shortsighted for the EU to compromise its liberal values for economic and strategic advantages. However, the EU must recognize that its current strategy aids those within Turkey who would have the country become more repressive. In using xenophobic platforms to play to their bases, European politicians send the message that Turks are not welcome within the European community. This drives Turks away from moderate Islam, and towards more radical ideologies.
As Turkey continues to develop as a democracy, its identity stands at a crossroads. Both its ideology and strategic partnerships are undecided. If the EU does not act quickly, it runs a serious risk of permanently losing Turkey as a strategically significant and economically valuable member state.