The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

New Blog: Steven Cook at CFR

Veteran Egypt (and Turkey and Algeria) watcher Steven Cook, an expert on things military and much else, has a new blog at the Council of Foreign Relations website. Steven, who wrote a masterful comparison of the military regimes in those three countries in Ruling But Not Governing, is currently working on a book on Egypt-US relations since the 1950s, which should come out next year.

In his latest post, written from Ankara, he writes about whether Turkey needs the carrot of EU membership to carry out democratic change anymore. It's something I've been thinking about a lot right now, having come to see Turkey as a democracy (despite remaining problems about its treatment of minorities and some laws left over from the military dictatorship era). And in fact, the recent constitutional changes were carried out at a time when the EU connection is getting weaker.

When I think about EU policy towards the Arab world, I see a mixed bag: on the one hand, there are EU policies that incentivize reform and change towards democracy. On the other, I see many policies that would like to focus on minimal reforms but not real appetite for full-blown democracy promotion, conditionality, etc. The lack of serious implementation of human rights provisions in EU Association Agreements comes to mind, for instance. At the end of the day, the EU is an unreliable partner for democratic change, because its members (esp. France, Italy and Spain) have too much incentive to maintain the status-quo. They, and the US, will continue to lean towards support the dictatorships until a credible, broad-based opposition movement begins to pose a serious challenge. The problem now is that the regimes, and their foreign partners, maintain a situation where it is extremely difficult for such opposition movements to emerge. I very much agree with the work of Richard Youngs at FRIDE on these issues.

Anyway, here's what Steve had to say about Turkey:

It’s long been an accepted truth in the Turkey-watching community that the EU was an anchor of Turkish political reform. The structure of Turkish politics was such that Ankara needed the incentive of EU membership to drive democratic change. Many Turks believe this as well, but after 58% of voters said “Evet” (Yes) to a series of constitutional amendments in a September 12th referendum, some commentary—by no means a consensus—began popping up here arguing that Turkey no longer needs the EU to drive its political change. The amendments, the most important of which has to do with the selection of judges to Turkey’s highest judicial bodies, raised legitimate concerns about the government’s ability to pack the courts. Yet, the perception among many is that with the changes to the constitution, the Justice and Development Party government took an important step toward a more open and democratic government that (unlike an array of reforms undertaken in 2003 and 2004) were not specifically in response to Europe’s membership criteria.

Add to Turkey’s apparent ability to undertake change on its own; falling support for EU membership—between 45-50%, which is down 30 points from 2004; a younger generation of Turks who have no vested interest in joining Europe; and imploding EU economies, in contrast to Turkey’s solid growth, it may be time to rethink Ankara’s relationship with Brussels. I am not suggesting that Turkey cut its ties to the West. Europe remains Turkey’s most important trading partner and source of foreign direct investment. Turkey could, after all, continue to harmonize its political and economic systems with the EU, but not take the ultimate step toward membership. That’s what Norway did, and it was enormously beneficial.

And get his book!