Last week Turkish president Erdogan told Turkish media “I am now revealing the reason why they [the EU] are not taking Turkey in. I am saying it openly, there is only one reason: We are Muslim, they won’t take us because we are Muslim.”
For some in Europe, that probably does have a good deal to do with the hostility towards the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union (EU). Especially in countries such as Austria, Poland and Hungary, but also increasingly in France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavian countries, the idea of more Muslim migrants in a short period of time has become quite unpopular.
PEW Research Center opinion polls in 2018 show a median of 24 percent of Europeans answering “no” to the question of “Would you be willing to accept Muslims as members of your family?” (66 percent answered “yes” while 10 percent did not know). When the same question was asked of Jews, the median “no” answer was only 17 percent (with 76 percent answering “yes”).
The results seem much worse when virtually the same question is asked of Turks, however. In 2013, PEW asked people in Turkey if they would be comfortable with their “son or daughter marrying a Christian.” Only 25 percent responded they would be “very” or “somewhat” comfortable for a son doing so, and even less (20 percent) said this for a daughter.
In the terms of the 2018 survey in Europe, that would mean about 75 percent to 80 percent saying they would not be willing to accept Christians as members of their family.
In another 2010 PEW survey, 68 percent of Turks said they had “unfavorable” views of Christians (10 percent had favorable views and 23 percent did not know). The “unfavorable” views towards Jews were only a bit worse, at 73 percent (with 6 percent having favorable views and 22 percent not knowing).
If so many Turks harbor such negative attitudes towards Christians, why do they even want to join the EU? Many, including this columnist, believe that most people in Turkey have little interest in European culture or norms about government and democracy, and would rather just reap the economic benefits of EU membership.
In a 2018 interview, La Stampa newspaper told President Erdogan: “The EU often quotes emergency law as well as scant respect for human rights in Turkey to explain why things are moving on so slowly [with Turkey’s accession process].” Erdogan responded: “I call on the EU to remove these artificial obstacles to our membership, and to be more constructive. Internal politics should not stand in the way of the accession process.”
Mr. Erdogan, in other words, does not think “internal politics” – such as his authoritarian grip on Turkey media and politics – should play a role in EU membership. This stands in stark contrast to the EU’s own rules for membership.
In all likelihood, Mr. Erdogan and his supporters never had much interest in joining the EU. From 2002 until 2013, they used the EU accession process and its Copenhagen Criteria to defang the Turkish military and Kemalist establishment and remove their grip on the Turkish political establishment. European countries and the United States cheered on this democratic reform process.
Once safely ensconced in power, however, Mr. Erdogan and his party stalwarts lost all interest in real democracy, repressing protesters in Gezi Park in 2013, rigging judicial appointments, reforming the constitution to make the presidency all powerful, purchasing or seizing almost all critical media outlets in Turkey, arresting opposition party members, and passing emergency laws to seal the deal.
If Turkey had already been a member of the EU when it took its authoritarian turn, there would have been little Brussels could have done about all this (as seems to be the case in Hungary and Poland presently). But Turkey has not yet joined the EU, and with these changes likely never will. The real reason for that centers on the fundamental lack of real democracy and civil rights in today’s Turkey.
None of which should discount some Europeans’ antipathy towards the prospect of a large, overwhelmingly Muslim state joining the EU Schengen visa regime, which would allow millions of Turks to move to any European country they wished.
Turkish officials themselves exacerbate European fears, such as in March 2018 when AKP parliamentarian Alparslan Kavaklioglu stated that “…the Muslim population will outnumber the Christian population in Europe. This… has increased the nationalistic, xenophobic and anti-Islam rhetoric there. Hence, marginal, small parties have started to get large numbers of votes… But there is no remedy for it. Europe will be Muslim. We will be effective there, Allah willing. I am sure of that.”
Mr. Erdogan at the same time tells Muslim Turks in Europe that they “are the future of Europe” and that they should have “five children each”. For good measure, he tells them: “Integrate yourselves into German society but don't assimilate yourselves!”
In a sense, Turkey already jointed the EU some time ago as a result. Many European leaders would just rather take in migrants from Turkey who will likely thrive in Europe rather than throngs of more Erdogan supporters.
Since Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian turn, many of Turkey’s best and brightest have in fact found asylum in Europe. In 2018 alone, 113,000 Turks emigrated. According to The New York Times, “They are leaving the country in droves and taking talent and capital with them in a way that indicates a broad and alarming loss of confidence in Mr. Erdogan’s vision, according to government statistics and analysts. In the last two to three years, not only have students and academics fled the country, but also entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and thousands of wealthy individuals who are selling everything and moving their families and their money abroad.”
With the best parts of Turkey thus already joining the EU, Brussels may reasonably conclude that it neither wants nor needs the rest of Turkey.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.