Taksim Square Protests: Is Turkey Telling the EU "Thanks But No Thanks"?


As the violence around the country enters its fourth day — with over a thousand injured and two confirmed deaths — Turkey’s human-rights record has earned itself another black stain.  

The brutal pictures coming out of Istanbul and Ankara show how comfortable the state has become repressing dissent, even towards those protesting something so trivial as a new shopping mall.

Turkey’s application for EU membership, reliant on political and social reforms that meet European standards, may be jeopardized by this weeks events. 

But could the Occupy Gezi repression be a sign the Erdogan government has given up on a future within the EU, choosing instead to return to an authoritarian culture of the past?

With Turkey’s EU application looking ever more unlikely, and its influence growing in a rapidly changing Middle East, the forces that have encourage Turkish reform are beginning to fade. 

Turkey’s EU membership, first applied for in 1987, has been the prize to encourage constitutional reform. EU Minister Egemen Bagis claims the application process has been crucial in making the country more transparent and democratic.

The prospect of billions in foreign investment, developmental funding, and access to Europe’s internal market was seen as a worthwhile exchange for moving away from the more repressive policies favored by past regimes.

Although the current constitution – a product of the 1980 coup – remains essentially authoritarian, the Turkish Parliament has made over a hundred amendments, many under pressure to meet stringent EU accession criteria. While many of these reforms are minor and incomplete — Article 301 banning citizens from “insulting the Turkish nation” being a prime example — the direction of change, while slow, has been generally consistent. Such changes like the abolition of legal protection for coup leaders and reforming stringent anti-terrorism laws, though far from perfect, have been welcome improvements.

But EU membership in 2013, and its potential economic and political benefits, is far less attractive than it once was. Turkey, with 4.6% growth predicted for 2014, has no reason to integrate with a Europe still struggling with a debt crisis and political turmoil.

Even if Turkey continues to jump through Europe’s hoops, the obstacles to accession are great. French and German opposition has been consistent, even bordering on racist, as their leaders stress the Christian and Jewish values of the EU. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, Turkey has developed a powerful role that comes without the preconditions demanded by Europe. Erdogan's opposition to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria places Turkey in a neo-Ottoman role, firmly on the Sunni side of the Shiite-Sunni split that divides the Middle East.

If Prime Minister Erdogan has concluded that Turkey’s future no longer lies with its neighbors to the West, the repression seen the last few days may not have been simply an accident of circumstance, but a deliberate change in policy. 

For more updates on Turkey's protests and other stories, follow me on Twitter at @alexebennett.