The EU used to have it, but now it’s lost it. Nora Fisher Onar suggests how the Union can rediscover that special something. Lessons from Turkey policy.
In the 1990s, the EU had the best story in town. This was a function of the core idea, the wildly inspiring notion that former nemeses could embark upon a journey based on mutual benefit, but also on celebrating the commonalities and unique dignity of each partner. The formula, Menon and other analysts claimed, was the most formidable mechanism for ‘managing difference peacefully ever invented’. Europe which had twice in living memory brought itself to the brink of disintegration and which no longer commanded the unassailable position it enjoyed in the nineteenth-century, appeared well-equipped to manage the challenges of the twenty-first. For Europe had turned its diminishing hegemony in the global arena into an asset by responding with exciting, new forms of transnational cooperation.
The EU-ropean story resonated in a world of increasingly complex interdependencies where power is measured as much by banks as by tanks. American commentators compared Europe’s ‘Kantian paradise’ to what many deemed an excessive reliance on hard power in Washington. After all, American interventionism would fail to secure the transformation of either Afghanistan or Iraq. But the European story of ‘normative’ or ‘civilian’ or ‘soft’ power resonated so loudly that a dozen accession countries and their hundred million citizens sought to remake themselves in Europe’s image. The EU experiment in regional integration was likewise studied with great interest as a model of best practice by organisations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In Turkey too, the European story proved irresistible. It was the embodiment of what Turkish reformers since the mid-nineteenth century have called ‘contemporary civilization’ – the cutting edge in political and economic governance. It was so powerful that significant segments of Turkey’s old, secularist establishment cooperated with the rising and EU-friendly pro-religious counter-establishment in the early 2000s. In the same period, army leaders gave the green light to European integration, signing off willy-nilly on their own marginalisation. As striking was the sight of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rejecting its Islamist and anti-Western roots to tout the European idea as a panacea for Turkey’s problems. The party went on to pursue intensive Europeanising reforms during its first term (2002-2007), enacting a veritable legal revolution and a partial social revolution that has yielded vibrant public debates.
Yet, those in Turkey who believed that democratisation and pluralisation would culminate in EU accession were belittled by sceptics as naïve. They were told that the EU, for all its inclusive rhetoric, was a parochial club whose members nurse an insuperable hostility/phobia towards Muslims masked by a flimsy multiculturalism. Others, recognising that ‘Europe’ is not monolithic, offered a more subtle version of the argument. They suggested that even if Social Democrat and Green overtures were in good faith, the anti-Turkish populism of the Centre- and Far-Right would forever stymie Turkey’s membership aspirations. Still others questioned the demand-side of the EU process. They attributed ulterior motives to the AKP and its embrace of a European story that, after all, provided leverage against the staunchly secularist military and judiciary. The assumption was that once these institutions were neutralised, the party would drop the European project.
Yet, during its first term, the AKP appeared undeterred. It had little to lose and everything to gain. If it succeeded in consolidating Turkey’s economic and political liberalisation along European lines, it would reap unprecedented domestic gains and international acclaim. These would accrue to both Turkey and the EU in a post-9/11 context where the Muslim world, but also frustrated citizens across the developing and developed worlds, longed for a counter-thesis to the aggressive civilizationalism they saw emanating from Washington. Meanwhile, if the AKP failed, it would at least have cast the ball in Europe’s court – and sure enough, as Turkey made rapid progress towards meeting the Copenhagen Criteria in the first half of the 2000s, the EU forgot its taboo on culturalist arguments against Turkish accession. An impassioned debate ensued in which the focus shifted to the future of Europe itself. The debate about Turkish membership became a debate about the future of Europe.
Such sentiments coalesced in a political crisis which further undermined the cogency of the EU-ropean story of the 1990s. A major component of the new zeitgeist is a visceral awareness of an emerging post-European – even post-Western – era. This has given rise to what Frank Furedi describes as a new Malthusianism – the view that the locus of creativity and productivity has shifted definitively to other regions of the globe. The contrast to the jubilant soft-power narrative of the 1990s could not be more dramatic. The prevailing pessimism is striking not only because it is arguably premature, but because it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yes, Europe faces structural challenges in numerous areas such as demographics, unemployment, growth, and energy dependency and a concomitant crisis of its welfare state(s). But the EU continues to have the world’s largest economy (and is recovering faster from the recent crisis than expected, with modest growth rates of 1.7 percent registered in 2010). It has a large, skilled labour force concentrated in the high added-value service sector, and a system of governance that – though unwieldy – may better suit a globalizing world of transnational threats and opportunities than any other form. Above all, Europe can dust off its story – of mutual recognition via mutual benefit – which galvanized actors across the world only a decade ago.
The fatalism with which the diagnosis of decline is being received is thus all the more disturbing. Because if Europe is facing a ‘tipping point’, a critical transitional moment from relative decline (vis-à-vis previous glory and the still formidable if humbled United States) to absolute decline (vis-à-vis rising powers in an increasingly multi-polar world), there is no empirical reason to consign the continent to the abyss. Yet, rather than display the innovativeness with which Europeans have reacted to crises in the past, it looks like many within the public and political classes alike simply wish to shore up remaining assets in a defensive last stand and live out a quiet retirement until inevitable obscurity.
Yet, for almost every one of Europe’s problems – from the imperative to diversify oil and gas supplies, to the need to balance blue- and white-collar immigration, to the necessity of finding a hundred million young people to carry Europe forward – there is a Turkish solution. Many argue that Turkey has found its feet at a time when the EU is wobbling. From cosmopolitan Istanbul to rising provincial hubs across Anatolia, optimism is palpable. Following IMF-instituted structural reforms, Turkey has averaged six percent growth and attracted up to 20 billion dollars investment per year, up from a scant billion in the 1990s. The country is climbing the ranks of the G20 and expected by some analysts to have the world’s 10th largest economy by 2050. It is also manoeuvring intensely to become an energy hub capable of transmitting vast quantities of gas and oil to Europe from diverse sources in Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Gulf. Meanwhile, the country is radiating an unprecedented power of attraction in cultural terms, exemplified by the fascination with Turkish soap operas displayed by some 80 million viewers from Fez to Skopje to Riyadh.
Likewise, at the level of foreign policy, bi- and multi-lateral engagement of formerly hostile neighbours has led to exponential growth in regional trade and blossoming relations. Instruments of the new foreign policy include conventional diplomacy as well as cultural, educational, and business-oriented initiatives. The clout these engender is spurring Turkey to seek a role as a desecuritising actor and mediator in its multiple regions. Such a path, especially with regard to the Middle East, is laden with pitfalls as attested to by the recent fallout in relations with Israel. But it also promises important dividends for Turkey and its partners.
The prospect of a more confident, more assertive Turkey is perturbing to some in the West because it suggests Ankara will no longer subordinate its own interests to those of its allies. This, however, should not be read as Turkey ‘turning its back’ on the West. This would ignore the possibility of multiple trajectories. And there are elements of continuity as well as rupture in the new Turkish foreign policy. One element of continuity is a western orientation. This is structural – a function of geography, such that Turkey’s commitment to the West may be exclusive (as was the case during the Cold War), or co-exist with other commitments (as is the case today). In this respect, the pragmatic AKP should remain cognizant of the fact that its newfound soft power is intertwined with the country’s (incomplete) transformation along European lines. As such, both the party and Turkey’s comparative advantage lies not in turning away from Europe but in acting as a bridge, a translator, and a mediator between multiple worlds. A renewed commitment to Europe would also assure those in Turkey concerned for their westernised lifestyles, forestalling further polarisation of the society and permitting the consolidation of a democracy that will be the truly enduring source of Turkish power.
The task then is to reframe increasingly acrimonious relations in the name of mutual benefit which, in turn, may allow for both the recognition of commonalities and celebration of differences. This may not require accession in the conventional sense – it could be achieved by developing a new approach to enlargement which transcends the zero-sum logic of member/non-member. For, whilst it is politically impossible for any Turkish policymaker to renounce the prospect of full membership, in fact, Ankara may not wish to cramp its newfound style. Its current foreign policy activism, for example, would be constrained by the need to coordinate initiatives with 27 partners. The recent NATO deal hammered out in Lisbon which ensures Turkey’s ongoing commitment to the Alliance whilst acknowledging its differentiated interests in its own sphere of influence is a promising precedent in this regard.
In the case of EU-Turkey, a revamped relationship could build on a logic of ‘gradual’ or ‘graduated’ integration and membership. This would entail negotiating in stages so that Turkey could actively participate in EU institutions and decision-making, but would not possess a veto until the final stage. It entails a guarantee of eventual membership to generate the political will necessary for reforms, bargaining, and concession-making, but buys time for both the EU and Turkey to put their houses in order. Such an approach would also help publics in both the EU and Turkey become comfortable with the prospect of Turkish membership. As a recent in-depth, cross-time analysis of European citizens’ views on Turkey shows, for all the noise about religious and cultural sources of ambivalence, ultimately, a utilitarian, cost-benefit logic prevails in public thinking on Turkish membership (see Canan-Sokullu and Kentmen). A ‘graduated’ approach would allow citizens to experience the benefits of meaningful integration before plunging from flirtation to marriage. There are abundant precedents. After all, within the framework of integration, the logics of ‘variable geometry’ or ‘multi-speed’ Europe have permitted member-states to participate actively in EU affairs without compromising either their national interests or the evolution of the Union.
Meanwhile, the notion of ‘special partnership’ with its suggestion that Turkey serve as a permanent, second-rate buffer state between the EU and the Middle East should be discarded as unrealistic and counterproductive. Rising Turkey has no incentive to play this role, and insistence on the demeaning formula only compels Turkey to envisage its relationships with Europe and the Middle East in either/or terms, to the detriment of all.
Whether EU politicians can rise to the challenge will depend on whether they recognise that the tipping point from relative into absolute decline does indeed loom but that it is not inevitable. To reverse the tide requires both pragmatism and soul-searching rather than scapegoating. It also demands interrogating shortcomings in extant conceptions of belonging, citizenship, and democratic participation, rather than disenfranchising those who are different.
Unfortunately, the trend today appears to be in the opposite direction. In societies once proud of their pluralism and tolerance, the far-right is rising. Mainstream figures increasingly seek to co-opt such platforms. This can only backfire in an EU where over fifteen million Muslim Europeans are settled for good. Policies like the recent French law establishing a precedent for stripping naturalised immigrants of their citizenship are deeply disturbing in this respect. They amount to a betrayal not only of the EU promise of the 1990s, but the humanist, enlightened tradition of equal and inviolable rights of man and citizen given to the world by the French themselves.
The projection of insecurity onto the vulnerable is a feature of all societies where the collective pie is shrinking. But it could hardly be more belittling to the European idea, nor more disruptive to Europeans’ ability to project their preferences on the world. The great irony is that many within and beyond the Union would like to see this projection succeed, a testimony to the power of the European story. Re-engaging Turkey by re-framing the enlargement/integration process through the prism of ‘graduated’ integration may give that story a new lease on life.
Dr. Nora Fisher Onar is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul and a Visiting Fellow of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Oxford.
For further reading:
Ebru S. Canan-Sokullu and Çigdem Kentmen, ‘Turkey in the EU: An Empirical Analysis of European Public Opinion on Turkey’s “Protracted” Accession Process’, in Armagan Cakir (ed), A Sisyphean Story: Fifty Years of EU-Turkey Relations (1959-2009), (London: Routledge, 2010)
Beril Dedeoglu and Seyfettin Gürsel, ‘EU and Turkey: The Analysis of Privileged Partnership or Membership’, BETAM, Available at:
Frank Furedi, ‘Meet the Malthusians Manipulating the Fear of Terror’, Available at: http://www.frankfuredi.com/articles/malthusians-20060627.shtml.
Cemal Karakas, ‘Gradual Integration: An Attractive Alternative Integration Process for Turkey and the EU’, European Foreign Affairs Review, Vol.11, No.3, 2006
Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev, The Rise of ‘Herbivorous Powers’?, European Council on Foreign Relations 24 October 2007. Available at:
Anand Menon, Kalypso Nicolaidis, and Jennifer Walsh, ‘In Defence of Europe – A Response to Kagan’, Journal of European Affairs, Vol.2, No.3, 2004�