“Caught in a bad romance…” Lady Gaga’s hit song fits the strained relationship between Europe and Turkey.

Musicians wearing Ottoman-era uniforms commemorate the anniversary of Istanbul’s conquest by Ottoman Turks, May 30, 2015, ahead of general elections. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Musicians wearing Ottoman-era uniforms commemorate the anniversary of Istanbul’s conquest by Ottoman Turks, May 30, 2015, ahead of general elections. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

“Caught in a bad romance…

Lady Gaga’s hit song fits the strained relationship between Europe and Turkey.

But will this week’s electoral setback for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party mark a new phase in the difficult courtship between Turkey and the European Union?

Europe and Turkey share a long history that goes back to Ottoman times when parts of Central Europe were annexed by the Ottoman Empire.

That Islamic Empire, centered around what is now known as Turkey, stretched at its peak from Tabriz (now Iran) to Hungary.

It was only in 1683 during the battle of Vienna that the Ottoman threat towards Europe was halted. The curtain dropped on the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One when it was sliced into separate states.

What remained of the empire was Turkey, a secular country that renounced its dreams of an expanding Islamic caliphate.

The first president of modern Turkey was the charismatic Kemal Atatürk, widely considered father of all Turks and a guide for the modern Turkish woman.

Under Atatürk’s rule, women wearing the traditional hijab Islamic headscarf were banned from working in the public sector. The concept of separation between religion and state was molded into an “active neutrality of the state”.

As years went by, the historical foes warmed up to each other again.

Maybe, just maybe, the European Union will start beckoning again.

Access negotiations between Turkey and the EU started in 2005. But the marriage was never concluded even though there are good reasons for the EU to welcome Turkey:

  1. Economic: With 74 million inhabitants, Turkey represents a golden opportunity for business. It’s a huge open market for the EU.
  2. Strategic: Turkey has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 1952, at the outset as part of a Cold War strategy against the communist Soviet Union. It remained a member after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, serving its purpose as a Western ally in regional conflicts. Last year U.S. President Obama included Turkey in its core coalition of 10 NATO countries against Islamic State rebels.
  3. Demographics: With more than 1.6 million Turks living in Germany and almost half a million in France, the Turkish community is very significant in Europe. Their ties to Turkey are strong. Male Turkish citizens in Europe still have compulsory military service in Turkey.

But there are also reasons for Europe to keep the door shut:

  1. Human Rights: For years the EU has urged Turkey to improve its human rights track record. According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015: “Great obstacles remain in securing justice for victims of abuses by police, military and state officials.”
  2. The Kurdish Question: Although a number of EU members states consider the armed Kurdish separatist movement PKK to be a terrorist organization, the EU insists Turkey should grant more rights to minorities including Kurds. Kurdish-Turkish tensions in Turkey sometimes flare up in Europe when immigrants clash during demonstrations.
  3. Turkey’s new regional focus: Although Turkey is a crucial NATO ally against Islamic State rebels, it is still an entry point for foreign fighters into Syria. Erdogan has been criticized for not taking a firm enough stance against Islamic State. The most daunting prospect for Europe is a return of the Ottoman dream. With his Justice and Development Party (AKP) Erdogan has gradually abandoned the Kemalist ideology of seeking friendship westward. The AKP seems geared more towards increasing geo-strategic engagement in the Middle East. Critics accuse Turkey of taking a passive stance towards Islamic State rebels in neighboring Syria.

But let’s return to our first question: What effect will the recent elections have on the strained relationship between Europe and Turkey?

For the last 13 years, Erdogan’s AKP has governed Turkey with a tight fist in a single party-government. Now the AKP will probably have to share power, perhaps with the pro-Kurdish HDP party, and may have to drop its neo-Ottoman dreams.

And maybe, just maybe, the European Union will start beckoning again.


Nadia Dala is a Belgian academic, author and multimedia journalist. She has worked as a reporter in Europe and the Middle East after studying in Tunisia and Egypt, and won the Pascal Decroos Award for excellence in investigative reporting. Her books include portraits of veiled Muslim women and a study of the history of Algeria and the rise of Islamic parties. A Fulbright journalism scholar at American University, she has taught at Georgetown University and is currently senior lecturer at Thomas More college university in Belgium.

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