US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently warned that Europe's failure to accept Turkey as a member of the European Union was encouraging Ankara's drift away from the Western ambit. "I personally think, he said, "that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought."
European leaders quietly brushed aside Gates's criticism. They said Turkey was courting new allies for many reasons, including the emergence of a new security environment in the Middle East after the war in Iraq. But Gates's assertion -- that European hostility to Turkey is having a negative impact in Ankara -- has far more merit than most Europeans are prepared to admit.
Many analysts say Turkey began turning its back on the West in November 2002, when the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in a landslide victory in Turkey's general elections. Although the AKP won only 34 percent of the vote, that was enough for it to rule without a coalition and to enable it to amend the Turkish constitution.
After the election, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved quickly to assure the West that he did not have an Islamist agenda and was committed to the secular principles that governed Turkey. He also promised, among other things, to continue to press for Turkey's entry into the European Union.
As part of the EU membership process, which officially began in October 2005, Erdogan promised to enact political and social reforms in 35 policy areas, or chapters, (also known as the Copenhagen criteria), required by Brussels for EU accession. Over the ensuing years, however, Erdogan reneged on commitments to implement reforms in at least 13 chapters, including those that would guarantee greater rights for religious minorities and freedom of expression.
But Erdogan was more than willing to comply with the key EU demand to bring the military under civilian control. Doing so radically altered the dynamics of a decades-long political power struggle between the Islamists and the western-oriented secularists who had controlled the military and judiciary since Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923.
By demanding that the Turkish military be subordinate to civilian leadership, the EU effectively put an end to the army's historic role in preventing the Islamists from undermining the secular nature of the Turkish Republic. As the self-proclaimed guardians of Turkish secularism, the country's generals forced four governments from power since 1960, including in 1997, when the military engineered the collapse of the first Islamist-led government to prevent it from introducing Sharia law.
At the urging of the EU, the AKP-dominated Turkish Parliament, in June 2007, passed legislation that curbed the power of the military. Erdogan also began to purge the armed forces and arrested hundreds of military officers, including the former commanders of the navy and air force, accusing them of plotting a coup d'état.
Critics of Erdogan say there is no credible evidence against the highly respected commanders, and they suspect the AKP concocted the scandal to advance its vendetta against the military. Some analysts believe that although the AKP officially supports EU membership for Turkey, its real aim is to use the accession talks as a cover to dismantle secular Kemalism and systematically convert Turkey into an Islamic state. They point to Erdogan's oft-repeated proclamation that "democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off."
As Erdogan implements EU reforms that bolster the Islamist grip on power, EU leaders privately admit they have no intention of allowing Turkey to join their club, even if Ankara meets all the membership requirements. In an effort to delay accession talks, the EU has repeatedly moved Turkey's membership "goalposts."
Since 1987, when Turkey formally applied for EU membership, 15 other states have cut to the front of the queue and been accepted: Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden. Turkey has watched from the sidelines as the EU has expanded from 12 states to 27.
Turkey's EU bid is obviously controversial, and Europeans cannot be faulted for treading with caution. Turkey is strikingly different from the rest of Europe in terms of economics, demography, culture, and of course, religion. Even supporters of Turkey's EU membership admit that Turkey is not really European, and that the 72.5-million-strong Muslim country would dramatically alter the EU power-balance the day it became a member.
But European leaders can be faulted for being dishonest with Turkey about its true prospects for membership. They repeatedly encouraged a Turkish bid, even though European leaders knew full well that they themselves were so deeply divided on the issue that Turkey's EU membership was unlikely ever to become a reality. Moreover, EU rules require that once Turkey meets all entry requirements (which could take several more years if not decades) its accession will then require the unanimous final approval of all 27 EU member states, an event that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
This deception has been aggravated by Europe's refusal to offer Turkey a more realistic alternative. While Britain and Spain are adamant that Turkey should become a full EU member, France, Germany and the Netherlands are just as adamantly opposed to it. Nevertheless, EU leaders flatly rejected Austria's recent calls for a compromise solution that would offer Turkey a status that stopped short of full membership.
EU officials responded to criticism by deciding to continue the accession charade. In late June, the EU agreed to open negotiations in the "heavyweight chapter" of food safety and veterinary health as "proof of their commitment" to Turkey's membership bid. "These are technical issues, but they carry great political importance as well, because they show that the negotiation process is still very much alive and making progress," said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos during a press conference on behalf of the EU.
Ataturk famously admonished his countrymen to "turn toward Europe." But Europe is not keen to return the favour. As Erdogan looks for new friends in the Muslim world, look for more tensions in Turkey's relations with the West.