Friday, 26 September 2008

Turkey

Why the EU needs to be clear in offering membership to Turkey

As any trainee barrister knows it is possible to defend someone without agreeing with them. So it must be for the west and Turkey, but here the roles are more interactive; the west can influence the behaviour of Turkey and should recognise when support is necessary.

The European Union has the greatest opportunity to influence Turkey and arguably the most to gain. There are some encouraging signs. This summer the self-imposed constitutional guardians, the generals of Turkey’s army and the true constitutional guardians, the courts, attempted to outlaw the democratically elected AKP the EU was clear that this was unacceptable, and indeed the party was not outlawed (although a fine was imposed).

In Turkey there have been many such attempts to remove or suppress a party for supposed anti-secular crimes. Banning or chastising a democratically-elected party is not unthinkable, but clearly there need to be clear evidence that the party in question seeks to overturn fundamental rights. The evidence to suggest this is true of the AKP has been tenuous at best.

In fact, the current regime in Turkey has made many positive steps for the country. A pro-European country that is a NATO member state which has recently banned the death penalty and in 2002 dramatically improved rights for women. It has even begun to make efforts with Armenia, a reconciliation that should be made as quickly as possible. When Nicholas Sarkozy, president of France, makes it clear that Turkey’s entry to the EU is not acceptable then it appears more likely this is about the religion of many of Turkey’s citizens rather than any geographical qualm with Turkey’s location.

This is not only foolish of the west and in particular the EU, but hypocritical and unethical. It is arguable that many of the EU’s greatest influences on countries have been prior to ascension - for evidence of this look at the efforts by Boris Tadić, President of Serbia to co-operate with the EU as his country seeks membership. By offering a genuine path to EU membership for Turkey the EU has the ability to provide support for the legal and social institutions that we hope protect citizens. Turkey, however, is already in many ways in a good position: it is a country that is secular by constitution, has a clear commitment to law and order and, despite the actions of the military, democratic. These are many of the things we would hope to see in other countries that surround Turkey.

The AKP is an Islamic party. This need not be a problem. The AKP has not proposed removing the secular requirement of the constitution, nor enforcing any state religion. We cannot believe in freedom of religion and then be upset when those who are elected profess belief. It is what they do with this belief that matters. We should believe that all people should live under democracy, but this will not work if when a party is elected we tell them they picked the wrong people; not unless the party is wilfully abusive of its citizens’ inalienable rights.

Like all parties, the AKP has made mistakes. Some are more forgiveable than others, but there are times when it plays into the hands of those who would seek to ban it. Comparatively minor offences such as censoring websites or art certainly lend credence to those who fear the AKP is not wholly committed to Turkey's secular principles and are a disappointing, reactionary course of action from a regime which should know better.

More serious incidents include playing host to Sudan's wretched leader, heavy-handed quelling of protests and increasing concerns about corruption. The situation in Kurdistan is more complex, and the PKK are far from saints, but the Kurds deserve more than a glib paragraph-closing comment, so we'll return to them in a later post.

Here we come back to the need to defend without necessary agreement. We can and should support the people of Turkey’s choice. We do not have to agree with every decision their government makes, and where appropriate we should not be afraid to say so. It is not hypocritical to support a government’s right to govern, but strongly disagree with a policy choice. So it must be for some of the poor decisions made by the country demonstrated above.

Rather than close the door on Turkey, the EU must detail the steps that will lead to its future membership. Not only will this afford the greatest influence, it will also underline that our commitment is to fair, democratic and just countries, and that this is not conditional on the ethnicity of those involved, nor the party they choose to elect.

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