What’s Wrong With Turkey?

On December 16, Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most famous writers, will enter an Istanbul court to face a charge of “insulting the national identity” after he advocated open discussion of the Turkish genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 and 1916. Pamuk faces three years in prison. Turkey’s effort to fine and imprison those who do not toe the official line convinces me that I was correct to oppose opening negotiations on the country’s European Union membership.

In December 1999, the European Council granted Turkey the status of EU candidate-member, implying that Turkey would accede to the Union at some future, unspecified date. The Council subsequently asked the European Commission to decide by October 2004 whether Turkey had sufficiently fulfilled the political criteria – including democracy, the rule of law, and respect for the rights of ethnic minorities – for membership. That decision was one of the last taken by Romano Prodi’s Commission, of which I was a member. Of its 30 members, 29 said that Turkey had fulfilled the criteria sufficiently to proceed. I was the lone dissenter.

The Commission’s own report on Turkey, prepared by Günter Verheugen, who was then in charge of EU enlargement, shaped my decision. This report mentioned that in 2003 some 21,870 Turks submitted asylum claims in the EU, of which 2,127 were accepted. In other words, the EU’s own governments acknowledged in 2003 that the Turkish government had persecuted more than 2,000 of its own citizens.

Meanwhile, the Commission published a progress report on Turkey that granted that reforms were continuing, albeit at a slower pace, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mildly Islamic-minded government. Yet the report also presented serious misgivings: human rights violations, including torture, continued; the military’s influence remained too high; freedom of speech was not universally observed; non-Muslim religious and cultural minorities faced discrimination; and violence against women was not opposed strongly enough.