Robert M. Cutler

The EU should recall Talleyrand’s dictum that “the devil is in the details” when evaluating Turkish constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, writes Robert M Cutler for ISN Security Watch.

By Robert M Cutler for ISN Security Watch

Ever since the then-European Economic Community signed an Association Agreement with Turkey in 1964, “official Europe” has been uneasy over the fact the military is the constitutional guarantor of Atatürk’s democratic and republican legacy. It has been uneasy even though the object of that guarantee is a state in the European mold, with the military itself the most Europeanized institution in terms of political values. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 as the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an unaccountable sense of relief pervaded the ‘Eurocracy’ in Brussels that a Turkish politician might “finally” seek some equilibrium between “democracy” and “Muslim values.”

Historical divergences

Alexander von Lingen, a former principal of the Secretariat of the Presidency of the European Parliament, and current director of the EquipEuropa analysis and training consultancy in Brussels, explains to ISN Security Watch that politicians in Brussels suppose Erdogan to be seeking a compromise between the values of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which are European values, and “Muslim values.” Von Lingen notes that European political elites have regarded Erdogan as an “understandable” politician, even a “mainstream” politician in European terms. One basis for that understanding is partly the fact that Erdogan, before his election in 2003, compared the AKP to Europe’s Christian Democratic parties, drawing on its superficial resemblance of religiously inspired social conservatism.

It is indeed likely that European politicians see the Turkish experience through the prism of Europe’s historical experience with the opposition between religious establishments and laicism. Some European politicians even suppose that previous Turkish governments have, according to von Lingen, “exaggerated Atatürk’s laicism.” The historical record, however, shows basic differences. The origin of Christian democracy, differs significantly from the AKP’s, as it was mainly a response to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum that sought, by improving the condition of the working class, to restrain the rise of socialism and trade-unionism in Europe.

Although events over the last two decades have overtaken some aspects of Raymond Aron’s classic treatise Democracy and Totalitarianism, his definition of necessary conditions for democracy remains valid. One of these is the alternation of political parties in power. Critics fear that the constitutional reforms introduced into the Turkish Grand National Assembly (Parliament) by the AKP under Erdogan put this aspect of the country’s democracy at risk. Those fears are not wholly without basis.

Present-day complications

Of the many possible approaches to Turkish constitutional reform, the particulars introduced by the AKP rather blatantly give it partisan, perhaps permanent, institutionalized advantage. The Istanbul-based expert Gareth Jenkins concludes in Turkey Analyst that while “the higher courts in Turkey have hardly been impartial,” nevertheless “numerous examples of the politically motivated abuse of power by AKP officials and party sympathizers in the lower echelons of the judiciary and the law enforcement system[…] taken together with the self-serving selectivity of the content of the AKP’s proposed constitutional amendments[…] raise concerns that the package will not serve the goal of moving Turkey closer to a pluralistic fully-functioning democracy.”

Jenkins specifically explains that although the provisions for restructuring the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges (HSYK, which nominates judges) are “broadly in line with the recommendations of the EU report of April 2009,” nevertheless “the AKP [preserves its] current influence on the council while […] diluting any opposition to the government” by “retaining the Justice Minister as chair of the HSYK.”

The EU report, on the other hand, specifically “described the presence on the HSYK of the Justice Minister as chair of the council as being incompatible with the separation of powers.” At the same time, the AKP reform package illogically invokes the separation of powers to make it actually more difficult for the Constitutional Court to conduct judicial review of the constitutionality of parliamentary legislation.

In addition, the proposed amendments call for increasing the Constitutional Court’s membership from 11 to 17, of which the president (currently Abdullah Gül, a former AKP politician) would appoint 14. The Islamic-leaning newspaper Zaman quotes no less a figure than former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer as saying, “If this [series of changes concerning the judicial branch] passes, the rule of law will be destroyed completely. The principle of separation of powers will become the unity of powers.”

The AKP does not have the votes in the Grand National Assembly to pass the constitutional amendments outright, but it is strong enough to force a popular referendum on them and to decide the terms of that referendum (e.g. up-or-down as a package vs. voting on each amendment individually). Jenkins remarks that if the Constitutional Court were asked to decide the constitutionality of the present reform package, and if its consideration of the question were delayed (as Sezer thinks would be legally necessary) until after the referendum now planned for June, then “some of the members of the newly expanded Constitutional Court could effectively be asked to vote on whether or not they should retain their posts.”

Europe’s current view

Von Lingen observes that, despite Erdogan’s recent threat to deport up to 100,000 Armenians living in Turkey without citizenship, so far in Brussels “neither the human rights situation [in Turkey] nor the newly introduced constitutional amendments [are] major issues of concern in the EU” and that “up until now, there has been no worry about Erdogan not being a democrat.” The statement by Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Füle in March observes that “the proposed reforms go in the right direction” and rhetorically insists on “the crucial importance […] that the broadest possible consultation takes place, involving all political parties and civil society, in a spirit of dialogue and compromise.”

Based upon closer inspection of the current constitutional package, the Istanbul-based observer Jenkins tends rather toward the view that, as regards to the EU’s recommendations, the AKP simply “has either advocated changes or retained clauses which restrict the room for maneuver of its opponents and increase its own influence, while refusing to contemplate any reforms which would curb its own power.”

This manner of proceeding is in line with Erdogan’s oft-cited statement, made as mayor of Istanbul and never disclaimed, that “democracy is simply a bus we ride until our destination, and then get off.” The origin of Christian democracy in Europe, as noted, has nothing historically in common with that of the AKP in Turkey. But also there is little in the way that the AKP has developed its ruling power that distinguishes it from the uncompromisingly anti-secular Islamic norm excluding any obligation to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Europe in the 20th century also experienced totalizing social movements that conquered national political hegemony, and they were not Islamic; therefore, there is no question here of any opposition between Islam and “Christian Europe.” That being so, the EU in its view of Turkey today should not blind itself to the appearance of specific threats against particular democratic norms.

“The devil,” as Talleyrand said, “is in the details.” There is too much unhappy experience in the past in Europe itself of silently awaiting the accumulated results of such programmatically announced yet individually incremental measures.

This article was first published by ISN Security Watch and is governed by the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. It is also republished on the blog on Robert M. Cutler’s professional website where you will find further current-analysis materials on the EU and on Turkey, as well as a range of pertinent academic works.

Robert M Cutler is a senior research fellow at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University in Canada.

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  1. I am not hostile to ideas in favour of strategic dialogue, and I too am fascinated by potential international security architectures. However, too many Europeans have been ill served in past centuries by the sort of Great Power entente that is adumbrated here, over and above the heads of smaller peoples. If the EU is to remain an exporter rather an importer of values, then it may be better to pursue 1-on-1 meetings with Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and any others, than to provide such large and resourceful states with a forum for concerting efforts against the EU, especially if the EU has not decided first what it seeks for itself. The main issues in broad visions are political engineering and institution-building. Le diable se cache dans les détails.

    If this sort of warning seems far-fetched, merely consider the Russia-Turkey entente verging on alliance regarding common energy policy vis-à-vis Europe, discussed in my early-March blog posts Europe Focuses on Southern Energy Corridor and Turkey and Azerbaijan Move towards Agreement on Shah Deniz Gas. For my historically-based conceptual analysis of the trends in evolution of international affairs in Eurasia during the first half of the 21st century, see my 1999 article The Complex Evolution of International Orders and the Current International Transition, which I find yet little reason to modify in its broad outlines.

    There are so many profound matters hinted at in your blog post, that any fuller treatment of them would not necessarily appear so summarily pessimistic. You are, after all, in fact proposing several research programs at once! The answers should be practical and grounded in the evolution of present circumstances, which desideratum does not not mean that they will automatically contradict broader vision. Yet it is difficult to sustain the argument on a normative basis, and especially in regard of the norms of which the EU portrays itself the exporter, that not all Europeans should have a seat at the table in preparing any initial démarche made in the name, whether sooner or later, of the EU as a whole. You will, after all, have to reckon with the European Parliament in its new form and with its new responsibilities.

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