Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 21

A recent statement by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has once again raised doubts about the government’s understanding of the requirements of Turkey’s EU accession process.

On February 2, with the domestic agenda still dominated by the reactions of hard-line secularists to the attempts by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lift the ban on headscarves in the country’s universities (see EDM, January 31), Babacan held a press conference at which he defended the government’s policy.

“Turkey is a country which has to make progress in the field of rights and freedom,” he said, “It is a country which has to make political reforms in order to become a full member of the EU” (Milliyet, Radikal, Yeni Safak, February 3).

The inference that the lifting of the headscarf ban is a prerequisite for EU membership will be greeted with bewilderment in Brussels, not least because of the ban on the headscarf in France. On November 10, 2005, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) confirmed an earlier ruling that the headscarf ban in Turkey was not only legal but necessary to protect the human rights of women who did not over their heads.

Privately, European Commission officials insist that they have always been careful to avoid mentioning the headscarf ban at all for fear of further antagonizing hard-line secularists in Turkey, many of whom are already opposed to Turkish accession to the EU.

There is no reason to believe that Babacan was being disingenuous. There have been other times in the past when he does not appear to have understood the full repercussions of what he has said. In July 2005, the AKP government signed an agreement promising to extend its Customs Union with the EU to all of the ten new member states which had joined in May 2004, including the Republic of Cyprus, to which Turkey has long refused to extend political recognition. The AKP was clearly trying to remove an obstacle to the opening of Turkey’s own official accession negotiations. Even though the negotiations were formally inaugurated in October 2005, Turkey has yet to extend the Customs Union to the Republic of Cyprus. In 2006, Babacan, who by then had been appointed Turkey’s Chief Negotiator for the EU accession process, famously and publicly dismissed suggestions that Turkey had broken its word by claiming that the EU had only asked Turkey to sign the agreement promising to extend the Customs Union to Cyprus, not to implement it.

Following Abdullah Gul’s elevation to the presidency, Babacan was appointed to replace him as foreign minister. However, he has been frequently overshadowed both by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has assumed increasing control over every aspect of government policy (see EDM, February 1), and Gul, who has already indicated that he intends to keep playing an active role in Turkey’s foreign relations.

Babacan’s recent statement will have done little to enhance his already fading credibility in the international community. Perhaps more significant than what he said was what he did not say. Although the European Commission has carefully avoided joining the headscarf debate inside Turkey, it has repeatedly called on the AKP to extend the very rights and freedoms that Babacan claims the government is trying to give to Sunni Muslim women to the country’s large heterodox Alevi minority and its dwindling Greek Orthodox community. The European Commission’s Progress Report of November 2007 explicitly called on the AKP to remove the discrimination faced by the Alevis in both education and freedom of worship and to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeli, just outside Istanbul. To date, the AKP has made no substantive attempt to do either.

On February 3, in a rare public demonstration, over 5,000 Alevis held a rally in the Kadikoy suburb of Istanbul to protest the AKP’s failure to acknowledge their distinct identity (Radikal, Hurriyet, Milliyet, February 4).

But public protests are not an option for Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox community. Officially, members of the community say that they number around 2,500. Privately, they admit that the real number is probably half that figure. As a result, they are dependent on the lobbying efforts of foreign countries and pressure groups.

In conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, opponents of the reopening of Heybeli seminary frequent claim that, once the Greek Orthodox Church is once again able to train clergy in Turkey, it would attempt to use its increased ecclesiastical authority to re-establish Greek political control over Istanbul. The figures, of course, do not add up. The suspicion remains that such claims are used merely to mask religious prejudices.

Perhaps most worryingly, there is evidence to suggest that, beneath the AKP’s rhetoric about religious rights and freedoms, such prejudices are shared by some members of the party’s decision-making core. The history of the seminary on Heybeli is well-documented and not disputed. However, in a recent interview with the Associated Press, Egemen Bagis, an AKP member of parliament and one of Erdogan’s closest aides, admitted writing an email describing the seminary as “not a historical church but an old pig farm” (AP, January 25).