Turks have started to support the EU bid for the right reasons
The head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was in Strasburg yesterday to deliver a speech at the Council of Europe.
Only a decade ago, it was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who was receiving the red carpet treatment in European cities, including Strasbourg, for the sweeping democratic reforms his government undertook.
It is hard to recall now, but back then one of the AKP’s mottos was “fight against bans.” Obviously, the bans they had in mind were the “bans” on religious freedoms. Some in the CHP saw banning headscarves in universities or in public office as necessary to avoid the erosion of secularism.
The secular-nationalist wing of the CHP (often called “ulusalcılar”) was always skeptical of the European Union, especially in terms of European calls to improve fundamental freedoms, including free speech (particularly if that meant criticizing Atatürk, the founder of the Republic). The EU’s demands to curb the military’s power in politics, find a non-military solution to the Kurdish problem, and improve the rights of non-Muslim minorities, were also seen as demands that would weaken Turkey’s secular political unity.
Due to the CHP’s intransigence, the AKP reforms that attempted to reach European standards made Erdoğan a rising star in Europe, and discredited the CHP even further.
But it looks like the tides are turning.
At the moment many Europeans believe Turkey is distancing itself from the EU. But despite the length and severity of the crisis between Turkey and Europe, support for EU membership remains considerably high, according to polls conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). “That’s because the people who are supporting the EU have changed,” said Sinan Ülgen, head of EDAM.
In the 2000s, support among AKP voters ran high because the party was a fervent advocate of the membership bid. In contrast, EU support levels were lower among CHP ranks. As relations between the EU and Turkey began to warm, some CHP members actually grew resentful, arguing that Europe was supporting the AKP’s secret agenda to erode the secular system in Turkey.
The situation has changed, according to Ülgen. Support in the AKP constituency stands at around 30 percent, even lower than that of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) voters. By contrast, support for the EU among CHP voters stands at more than 70 percent, and is expected to rise further, because CHP voters see the EU as a partner on issues of democracy, human rights and rule of law.
This is striking because I have come across dozens of polls over the last decade on Turkish-EU relations, and in almost all of them, the most compelling motivation to support the EU membership bid were economic reasons.
So it seems some Turks have finally started to support the EU for the right reasons!
In addition to this shift in society’s mentality at the grassroots level, we can see another shift at the government/establishment level.
The privileged partnership offered to Turkey by Germany as an alternative to membership was always rejected by the ruling elites, until recently. Nowadays, especially with Brexit talks on the march, there is more interest in an alternative that will fall short of membership; a relationship based on deep economic integration devoid of political conditionality.
While the gap between CHP supporters and the AKP’s ruling elite remains wide open, the divisive discourse has changed in terms of substance.
The AKP wants Turkey to be an economic partner with Europe, but it also wants to avoid complying with the democratic standards of the EU, while the CHP on the other hand is more interested in the democratic dimension of the process.
Although he continues to bash EU leaders on a daily basis, Erdoğan has also been pushing hard to be seen in the same picture with EU leaders. Turkish diplomats have been tasked with securing a visit to Brussels or another European capital.
It is no coincidence to see Kılıçdaroğlu speak in Strasbourg as Erdoğan waits for an invitation.