"Well, it is worth pointing out that joining the EU is a long term process," comments Chris Morris, author of The New Turkey – The quiet revolution on the edge of Europe. Much of Morris’ tenure as BBC correspondent in Turkey [1997-2001] was spent, necessarily, examining the complexities and contradictions that surround Turkey’s proposed membership of the EU. "Actual membership for Turkey, if we ever reach that point, is at least a decade away. So there is plenty of time for further crises! One thing which may surprise many Turks is the scale of change they are facing. There are more than eighty thousand pages of EU rules and regulations which will have to be adopted as Turkish law – and some of the most difficult issues will be some of the most mundane… food safety, agricultural reform, environmental standards and so on. Then there are the flashpoints which tend to make headlines – human rights, the role of the military, and in particular the continuing division of Cyprus. Now that the Greek Cypriots are in the EU themselves they look likely to make things difficult for Turkey at every turn – and that will test the patience of many people in Ankara and Istanbul. Tayyip Erdogan’s government is already under fire from nationalists for having conceded too much on the Cyprus issue".
Much of the debate, in countries like France and Italy, surrounding Turkey’s application has presupposed that for Turkey membership of the EU is vital. This may be a view shared by the current Turkish government, and various groups wishing to continue the reform process, but, as Morris’ book demonstrates, there are many different opinions as to where Turkey’s future may lie. Canvassing opinion in the fish markets of Istanbul, he asked one trader what he thought of Turkey joining Europe: "Oh yes, we love Europe, we want to be part of Europe, but if they don’t want us, then they can go to hell". Turkey is coming to terms with the modern world, examining its culture, laws, society and place in the world. Is it realistic, though, to suggest that Turkey might conceivably turn down EU membership one day? "It’s certainly a possibility, – responds Morris. – If Turkey passes all the reforms which the EU demands it will emerge in 10-15 years as a completely different country, – politically, economically, and socially. It is not inconceivable that a growing number of Turks will then turn round and say ‘Wait a minute – we’ve achieved what we wanted, we’ve changed our country, we’re successful and stable, we no longer have a pressing need to join the EU.’ Many Turks are also just beginning to understand the loss of sovereignty that EU membership entails – and in a country so proud of its independence that will be a big factor in future discussions".
Those within the EU arguing for Turkey’s admission point to the serious reforms gained as part of the admission process. This begs the question as to what may happen should the EU decide to turn down Turkey’s application to join? Is there a danger that the reforms of recent years could be swept away by such a decision? "I don’t think the clock can be turned back entirely, no,” Morris responds, before continuing to point out that “reform has certainly been linked to the EU process, but it is also the result of internal demands for change bubbling up through the political system. For many years, the Turkish state stuck to the old ways but the people are no longer prepared to accept that. Even if the EU process falters, I think reform has a momentum of its own. But there will still be plenty of attempts to knock it off course".
In countries like Italy, where there is as they say ‘a history’ with Turkey, or more aptly the Ottoman Empire, a certain prejudice is apparent when Turkey is being discussed. Phrases using ‘Turco‘ perjoratively abound in Italian, up to and including the famous “Mamma li Turchi” [Mama the Turks are coming!]. Opponents to Turkish EU membership have at times had recourse to murmuring about the battle of Lepanto, fought in 1571 [Government party Lega Nord referred to the battle when protesting in Milan against accession talks]. As BBC correspondent in Turkey, did Morris encounter similar residual prejudices on the part of Turks, as a result of our troubled but shared history? "Yes. Just as in countries like Italy, Hungary and Austria there are still historical memories of Ottoman conquests, so there are memories in Turkey of western attempts to carve the country up after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Support from abroad for the Kurds, or for the Armenians, is still seen in quite serious political circles as part of a long term plan to weaken and divide the Turkish republic". Morris in fact devotes ample space in his book to exploring Turkish/European history, because, as he puts it, "these historical issues continue to play such an important role in relations between Turkey and Europe today".
While right wing parties across the continent warn about an influx of Turks into Europe, the reality is that since the ’60s Turks have been welcomed into various European countries as a source of cheap labour. The West German economic miracle was fuelled as much by Turkish Gastarbeiters as by Teutonic efficiency. Since the 60s Turkey, with a population of roughly 72 million, has experienced huge upheavals through internal and external migration. "The most significant migration in modern Turkey has been internal, with – millions of people moving from the countryside to the cities. That trend accelerated in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced from villages in the south-east by the armed forces during the war against the PKK rebel movement," Morris explains. "I think the main effect of emigration to other European countries has been to open Turkey to the world. Fifty years ago this was a very closed society with little knowledge of other societies and cultures. Now most people – even if they live in the remotest villages – have relatives and friends who live or work abroad. Some of them come back and bring new ideas and broader perspectives with them. For the most part this has been a positive development, but it has also created some social tensions, for example the clash between young women with more modern values and their conservative parents."
Women’s rights are one of the faultlines highlighted by the west, suggesting that Turkey as a predominantly Islamic country has lots of work to do. It’s an area, though, that is more complex than often suggested. For example Turkish women won the right to vote in 1934, while it was 1945 before Italian women, for example, could legally vote. Turkey has had a female Prime Minister, while for many European countries this remains no closer than when female suffrage was introduced. "Women are certainly equal before the law, but they’re not equal in practice,” says Morris. “A small minority of women has risen to the very top in politics, in business or as doctors, judges and TV personalities… but that is only part of the story. In conservative areas women are often treated as second class citizens, particularly before they are married. They are confined to the home, or unable to go out without a close male relative. ‘Honour killings’ of women who are deemed to have disobeyed strict tribal or family rules are still far too common in rural areas, and migration has brought this brutal phenomenon to the big cities, and to Turkish communities in western Europe."
Just as torture has continued in Turkey, according to bodies such as Human Rights Watch, after reforms have been implemented at the State level, so too with women’s rights it will take time and effort to change a culture. "Recent legal changes give women more legal protection, and suggest much tougher penalties for those who abuse them. Activists say their big challenge now is implementation – to get legal reform to make a difference on the ground. It will take a long time for a real change in mentality to reach all corners of Turkish society".