Is Turkey losing its sense of direction?

Is Turkey losing its sense of direction?

Turkey’s drift from its commitment to the West and its institutions is becoming a widespread perception in Europe and the United States. Sadly, this perception is driving the Turkey-related decision making processes in most of those countries. Turkey is no longer seen as a major asset, partner or like-minded country. On the contrary, the inclination now is to define Turkey more as a liability.

Turkey’s republican history has witnessed an interesting journey in its relations with the West. One cannot disregard the psychological effects of the First World War and the subsequent national war of independence, which led to a measure of distance and suspicion about Europe. This in turn became a major motivation for Turkey’s attempts to strengthen its relations with neighbors and consolidate its independence.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the new geopolitical and geostrategic configuration facilitated Turkey’s integration with a wider international community. Integration with Europe and its institutions, in that respect, became Turkey’s enhanced vocation.

After all, led by Atatürk, this was also what the founding fathers of the Republic had formulated as Turkey’s purpose. Membership of NATO, the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the OECD, the OSCE and the signing of the Ankara Treaty to become a member of the European Union were all major milestones of this vocation.

The westernization of Turkey did not require bidding farewell to its history, traditions and cultural values system. However, rapprochement with the West triggered a more comprehensive interaction with a wider set of universal values. Democracy, respect for human rights and freedoms, pluralism, respect for minorities and their rights, liberal civil society, the rule of law, social welfare and free market competition were all parts of this new synthesis.

The paradigm for countries defining their directions according to goals or values needs to be framed carefully. Turkey’s Western vocation shows that Turkey’s goals also define her values. Some name it the Copenhagen criteria, some name it other capitals.

Turkey’s goal is to take her well-deserved place in the European community of nations. However, it is essential to underline that such a goal also necessitates commitment to fundamental values that are universal and independent of cultural bias. They are not prejudiced by religion either, unless secularism is abandoned.

Today, many question whether Turkey is losing her sense of direction. That is a pertinent question which tacitly - and not unintentionally - hints at another question: Does such a loss of direction also imply a drift from universal values? Those who think this is the case also think Turkey’s integration with the West and many of its institutions will be negatively affected by such a loss of direction.

One should not underestimate the serious challenge that Europe is facing with the consequences of rising populist tendencies, which increase polarization in politics. Populism tends to identify scapegoats in order to strengthen the paradigm it aims to create and generally uses xenophobia and discrimination as its instruments.

When Turkey, for several reasons, finds herself part of rising negative perception about her commitment to universal values, it is inevitable that this phenomenon transforms into a vulnerability to be easily exploited by populism. As a result, Turkey’s membership in European institutions that it has so selflessly and enthusiastically supported or participated becomes a major burden.

It is very unfortunate that Turkey’s redefinition of identity has become its weakest link in terms of its relations with the West. It is also sad that Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU, as well as its relations with the Council of Europe, if not with NATO, also seem to be affected with a perception of this weakening.

Debates on the reintroduction of the death penalty into the Turkish criminal code, as well as rumors circulating on the possibility of a referendum on the continuation of Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU, further aggravate negative perceptions about Turkey.

Turkey’s integration with Western institutions and organizations is a process that reassures her commitment to democratization as well as to her internalization of universal values. Accession negotiations with the EU are also a part of this process.

If a referendum is necessary on the future of Turkey’s relations with the EU, it should take place only after the successful completion of the accession negotiations. This will enable the people of Turkey to decide maturely whether they want to be a part of Europe or not.

Any pre-emptive effort to test the willingness of the people of Turkey will simply disrupt the process of democratization. That is especially important at a time when perceptions about Turkey are already resulting in questions about its loss of direction.