Monday, 13 September 2010

Referendum in Turkey - Careful what you wish for, Europe

Yesterday's referendum in Turkey, which saw 58% of Turks vote 'yes' to a dramatic reform of the country's constitution, was being warmly welcomed in press releases from both Brussels and the European capitals today. But despite their warm words for the vote's institution of Democratic reforms, there are no doubt worries behind the scene in Europe today as they take in what the vote really means for the direction Turkey is headed in. Paradoxically, although this is exactly the type of reform the EU has been demanding of Turkey in order for it to be able to join the EU, the vote's outcome can actually be seen as an indication of how quickly the Turkish population is drifting away from Western influence.

The changes are mostly aimed at reducing the role of the military in the country, and were champtioned by Turkey's current Islamo-conservative prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The vote represents a huge victory for Erdogan over the country's uncompromisingly secular military. It indicates that his Islamnic party will likely win the upcoming elections next year. And, it satisfies a main demand of the EU for Turkey to be able to join the union. But considering that the legitimate concern over the wisdom of a Turkish accession is now a consensus everywhere in Western continental Europe, this could actually cause some real headaches for European policy makers. It is likely they will just move the goal posts further out for Turkey's accession, a tactic criticised by last year's report on EU policy toward Turkey.

But in getting the very thing the EU asked for from Turkey, namely a democratisation of the country's judiciary and other prominent institutions, the reality is that the "Europeanisation" of Turkey is moving very quickly backward. The fact that Turkey has historically been a secular nation is always used as a main argument for having it join the EU. But while this vote will bring more democracy to the country, it will also give more power to Erdogan's religious political party. The EU may be demanding that ordinary Turkish people be given more of a voice in the government, but in the end they may not like the things those ordinary Turkish people want. Turkey is heading down the road to becoming a more Islamic, religious country. Is that road going in the same direction as the one toward EU membership?

Considering that there is absolutely zero appetite to be undertaking such a major accession project at this time even among the causes most vocal champions (the British), the fact that Erdogan has now made the very democratic reforms the EU was asking for is going to create an awkward situation. No serious politician would suggest that with all its problems the EU should try to increase its population by 15% and take on a country that would eventually be the largest in the union. Yet the ball is now in the EU's court. Europe's leaders are quickly running out of excuses to hold off on an accession they previously promised but no longer want.

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