2013 Protests in Turkey and Prospects for Turkish EU Membership
My name is Grant Eyster, and I will begin my senior undergraduate year this fall as a Policy Analysis major in Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. As part of my summer internship with IU’s Institute for European Studies, I will be writing several posts to supplement this blog. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy my contributions.
Turkey, a nation of roughly 75 million citizens, has experienced years of political stability and economic growth, despite being surrounded by nations recently encountering severe economic and political distress. The nation’s strategic location on the Mediterranean and Black Seas, straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, has given Turkey major influence in the area. As widespread protests against the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continue with no end in sight after more than three weeks, however, the stability and future of this important regional power appears up in the air. The vitality of the Turkish economy and political state is at stake, and there are fears unrest in Turkey could further add to the violent turmoil of the Middle East. On top of all this, Turkey’s long-standing effort to join the European Union could be jeopardized by the massive current protests and the fierce government and police response.
Protest Background and Impact
On May 28, 2013, roughly 50 environmentalists were staging a sit-in at Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, hoping to halt government plans to demolish and commercially develop the park, one of the city’s rare central green spaces. Municipal police responded harshly, dispersing the peaceful protesters with tear gas and pepper spray and burning down their tents in order to allow the redevelopment plans to continue. Images of the severe police crackdown on nonviolent protesters spread quickly on Turkish social media, and the number of protesters grew dramatically the following days in support against the actions of the police. As police forces continued to use water cannons, pepper spray, and gas canisters to control crowds and clear Gezi Park, anger regarding police brutality and the actions of the government grew and the scale of the protests became increasingly massive.
Between June 4th and 10th, the protests widened into a show of general anti-government dissent in cities across Turkey, as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital city of Ankara, Izmir, Adana, and roughly 75 other Turkish towns and cities. What started as a small environmental protest has evolved into nationwide demonstrations by people of all walks of life against the Turkish national government. Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in power since 2002, winning three elections by large margins. Although Erdogan has led Turkey to increasing economic power and regional prestige, some citizens cite a number of grievances against the national government. A primary complaint among many protesters is that of a creeping Islamisation of the Turkish secular state, established after World War I by famed leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A number of Islamic-leaning initiatives have been undertaken by the Erdogan government recently, including seeking to end the constitutional ban on the Islamic headscarf, as well as seeking to ban adultery and kissing in public. Additionally, a bill passed the Turkish parliament several days before protests began banning late-night sales of alcohol. Furthermore, others point to Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and a campaign against his critics in the media. Other complaints include Erdogan’s peace process with Kurdish militants and the government’s support of the opposition in neighboring Syria.
Prime Minister Erdogan has reacted to the protests defiantly, perhaps emboldened by the strong support he still maintains in many areas of the country. In recent days Erdogan has threatened that the military could be employed to end the widespread protests across Turkey, although the military has traditionally been the protector of secularism in the nation. The government also offered to hold a referendum on the redevelopment of Gezi Park, but it is unclear whether this would have much effect now, as the protests have evolved to be about much more than that single issue.
Since Prime Minister Erdogan retains significant support across Turkey and is unlikely to lose the backing of the AKP, a political party he founded, there does not appear to be a risk of significant political change in the country on a national level. The weeks-long protests have had other important consequences, however. Most notably, the protests have displayed the fragility of the Turkish economy, which has relied largely on foreign investment in recent years. Although severe effects have not yet been realized, continued protests and political instability could scare off potential investors, stalling an economy that has already slowed in response to the recent global economic crisis. As the continued growth of the Turkish economy in the first decade of the 21st Century has depended largely on political stability, continued unrest could have disastrous effects for the economy. Just several days after the protests began, on June 3, Istanbul’s stock exchange experienced a 10.5 percent loss in a single day, the “biggest one-day loss in a decade,” as foreign investors began to pull money out of the Turkish economy. Istanbul’s main shares index further fell by 1.7 percent following reports by Rating’s agency Moody’s that continued protests would result in significant credit risks and the markets have continued to struggle since in the face of ongoing unrest.
Additionally, the economy could be significantly weakened by a reduction in tourism. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Turkey ranked 6th in the world in tourism in 2011, with more than 31.5 million foreign tourists providing more than $23 billion in revenue. Continued unrest could scare off potential tourists and further damage the national economy. Similarly, there are fears that the current protests, particularly in Istanbul, could jeopardize the city’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Istanbul is among three candidate cities to host the Olympics, the others being Tokyo and Madrid. With the selection coming up relatively soon, on September 7, 2013, many in Turkey are concerned that Istanbul’s strong bidding process will be negated by the scenes of unrest and violence in the city.
Prospects for European Union Membership Following Protests
Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union (EU) and its predecessors since 1963. After applying for full membership in 1987 and being confirmed as a candidate for membership in December 1999, Turkey began negotiations to enter the European Union in October 2005. A number of issues have stalled negotiations, even after initial estimates of Turkish accession taking 10-15 years or more. The negotiations between Turkey and EU leadership have been overshadowed largely by concerns about freedom of speech and respect for democracy in Turkey, the treatment of religious minorities, women’s and children’s rights, civilian control of the military and the long-standing tensions with EU member Cyprus.
The recent protests in Turkey and the harsh government response appear to be a further obstacle to the nation’s hopes of joining the EU. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle echoed the statements of many other EU leaders and stated, “We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation, in the spirit of European values, and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue.” On June 20, it was announced that Germany has blocked the start of a new round of negotiations with Turkey over the government crackdown on protests and a lack of reconciliation efforts by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This signals a growing alienation between Turkey and some within the EU, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a long-standing opponent of Turkish accession. Without new negotiations, which have not taken place for three years, Turkey’s progress of entry into the EU will continue to be stalled. As European leaders become increasingly reserved about the prospect of Turkish entry, and anti-European feelings strengthen among some in Turkey, prospects appear dim for meaningful negotiations and Turkish accession to the European Union in the near future. If protests continue unabated and government violence increases in Turkey, irreparable damage may be caused between the nation and the EU, and the prospects for Turkish entry into the EU may be put on hold indefinitely.