2009. Not a nice round number.
Still, the Turkish press celebrated its arrival as the ‘make or break’ year for Turkey’s EU membership aspirations. Again.
Turkey seems to be having such ‘make or break’ years quite often since 1965 – when attempts to join the European institutional family first started. Since then, each year is make or break. Only it never is.
Granted. There have been good years. Customs union was achieved in 1996. That was a huge step. But not the breakthrough some had hoped for. And while Turkey was striving for membership, the EU was itself changing dramatically, becoming an increasingly complicated institution. And making membership increasingly harder. So Turkey was chasing a moving target. And in 2001 a decision was made to go all out in its pursuit.
2001. Not a nice round number. But a momentous year. Because a collective choice was made by the public, parties and state agencies to channel all creative energies on an unconditional drive towards membership. This consensus was long coming and it made unlikely bedfellows of politicians, generals, activists and academics who shared the EU membership aspiration, albeit for different reasons.
2001 was a momentous year for Turkish politics, civil society, domestic reform.
But make or break, it wasn’t.
Eight years on and this reform drive, having achieved a lot but not its stated objective, is faltering as fatigue and disillusionment are setting in. Reform has gone far, but not far enough. Change has been rapid, but not rapid enough.
And although a lot has changed, Turkey’s fundamentals remain unchanged. Its system (the foundation of the laws, the cornerstone of the polity) remains collectivist, nationalist, secular. EU-sponsored individualism, multi-culturalism and freedom of religion have coloured many laws but not the legal system. They have informed much change, but have not changed Turkey’s political core.
Part of the problem may well be that the system works.
The EU is made up of liberal democracies. Some members started off that way. Others were taken in after the end of bloody dictatorships or after the collapse of communist regimes. All were ready for a new start, all were keen to be guided into EU-sponsored liberal democracy.
Turkey is different. It is membership it covets, not a new political system. And as it is becoming clear that one without the other is not an option, the question is will 2009 be a make-or-break year after all?
Turkey already has a customs union.
And as financial handouts and free movement of people within the Union are restricted for new members, the practical appeal of membership is not all that great any more for Turkey.
After years of crushing humiliation and rejection, the feel-good factor of being accepted in the European club is losing credibility fast as well.
And the Europeans don’t want Turkey. After the longest negotiation in the Union’s history, Turkey is still out in the cold and many within the EU still clamour for ‘privileged partnership’ but not membership.
So many in Turkey are saying ‘enough is enough already’ – 2009 is the time to make or break this one for ourselves.
But what about the reforms?
The EU drive has allowed much-needed reforms to take place, protecting freedom of speech and expression. Without the EU drive, will all this die in the water?
NGO statistics show human rights abuses being on the up in 2008. Legal reform has been wide-ranging but not far-reaching and the amendments made to specific laws have had little effect on the realities of the courtroom. Reform is not yet consolidated and if membership negotiations buy the reformists time, then at least they are good for something.
Yet the debate around freedom of speech is robust. Change is taking place. And a lot of it is self-referential. It is not about the EU. It is about Turkey.
So 2009 may be a make or break year after all. Membership or no membership, it may be the year when the balance tips and reform picks up pace again, not because the EU decrees it but because civil society demands it. 2009 could be the year of consolidation. EU or no EU.
If people put their minds to it, this could be Turkey's last ‘make or break’ year.