If you are sitting in Brussels and looking at what is going on in Turkey, it is almost unavoidable that you will reach a sad conclusion: Turkey is simply not mature enough as a democracy to qualify for EU membership.
In the past, I used to think that the main challenge for Turkey was to become a "liberal" democracy. If only Ankara could shed some of its illiberal tendencies, I believed, it would prove its political credentials as a first rate democracy and deserve EU membership. Yet now I can’t help but realize that the challenge for Turkish democracy is much more daunting than I thought. The issue is no longer whether Turkey can become more liberal. It is rather whether Turkey can maintain a semblance of democracy.
None of the countries in Europe’s periphery have the kind of identity problems that Turkey has. Yes, it is absolutely correct to argue that if countries such as Bulgaria and Romania managed to become members of the European Union, so should Turkey. But such arguments focus on the economy and the level of social development. Turkey is certainly economically more advanced than some of the new members of the EU.
A political challenge
But Turkey’s challenge is not the economy. The real challenge for Turkey’s EU membership is political. The most basic prerequisite for democratic rule is civilian supremacy over the military. No one can dispute who is in charge of Bulgarian or Romanian politics. It is the civilian government, not the Bulgarian military. The same goes for Romania. But in Turkey the answer to the question of who is in charge is much more complex. Is the civilian government really in charge of Turkey? How can we argue that it truly is, if despite having won an overwhelming electoral victory a few months ago it now faces a real risk of being shut down by the judiciary? How can Turkey prove to Europe that it is a first class democracy if the civilian government cannot be sure if it can survive this political onslaught?
Samuel Huntington called Turkey a "torn" country in his book on the clash of civilizations. Unfortunately, he was right.
Turkey’s identity problems are so deep and so existentialist that they constantly paralyze the political dynamics of the country. A harmonious balance between Islam, secularism and Western identity and democracy appears increasingly elusive in Turkey. To the contrary, Turkey is rapidly emerging as a country where political conflicts over Muslim and secular identity jeopardize the country’s chances of staying on a Western and democratic path. We are far removed from the days when it was fashionable in Western circles to argue that Turkey was the perfect case proving the fallacy of the clash of civilizations. Instead Turkey is now a perfect case of how a country’s own paradox can lead to a domestic clash of civilizations. If the current dynamics of polarization in Turkey culminate with a judicial coup against the Justice and Development Party (AKP), it will simply be impossible to argue that Turkey is a Western country and a European democracy. In other words, the EU would legitimately be able to argue that it is impossible to continue accession negotiations with a country where the civilian government is toppled by non-democratic forces. Simply put, the closure of the AKP would be the end of Turkey’s EU journey.
Turkey had one major factor going in its favor during these difficult decades: the Cold War. The bipolar design of the Cold War divided the world into Eastern and Western blocs, and within this division Turkey clearly belonged to the West. As a NATO country that shared borders with the Soviet Union and tied down some 24 Russian divisions, Ankara’s Western credentials went undisputed. Thorny questions concerning democratic standards, military interventions, human rights and a Muslim identity were therefore largely set aside.
This somewhat uncomplicated Western image of Turkey lasted as long as the Cold War did. To the dismay of Ankara, the Turkish bid for EU membership came under increasingly critical democratic scrutiny after the demise of the Soviet Union. There are still some people in Turkey who believe Europe should embrace Turkey despite all its political and democratic deficits, simply because of the country’s geo-strategic importance as an energy corridor or a country that borders the Middle East. Such circles fail to understand that Europe is a club of liberal democracies. There are also those in Turkey who believe that Europe would never let Turkey in because of Islamophobia.
Unless Turkey becomes a liberal democracy, we will simply never know whether Europe is serious about Turkey or not. It would be very easy to adopt a narrative of victimization on grounds that Europe will always say "no" to Turkey because of its Muslim identity. But as long as Turkey gives the EU an opportunity to say "no" for political reasons, the question of Turkey’s Muslim identity will remain irrelevant.