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Turks greeted the European Union's decision last week to start accession talks by acclaiming their prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as the second coming of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey. Not only will EU membership transform Turkey, it will also transform what it means to be European. Erdogan should now use his enhanced prestige and domestic political clout to intensify reforms at home. Turkey's continued democratization would not only increase its chances of joining the EU; it would also make the country a stronger force for freedom in the Muslim world.
Erdogan's remarkable personal story is a metaphor for Turkey's own ascendance. Born to a poor migrant family on the Black Sea, Erdogan rose to power through the ranks of Turkey's Islamic parties and conservative organizations. A committed Muslim, he also realized that, although religion satisfies the soul, Turkey's progress requires a commitment to secularism, democracy, and economic prosperity. While pursuing EU membership, Erdogan never wavered in his devotion to Islam or pride in his Turkishness. Yet he also proved to Brussels that Turkey is committed to European values and would be an asset to the union.
Through effective and charismatic personal diplomacy, Erdogan, in seeking Turkey's accession, burnished his credentials at home and in Europe. He never begged for admission; instead, Erdogan conducted a strong and positive campaign, all the while insisting on equal treatment. He resolutely rejected European proposals for a "privileged partnership" instead of full membership for Turkey, and resisted efforts to force him to recognize Cyprus as a condition for entry.
Despite grumblings from hard-line nationalists, the vast majority of Turks have enthusiastically welcomed the EU decision. Erdogan's public approval rating, already sky-high, has climbed even higher. He should now use this political capital to push through important political, economic, and security reforms, further consolidating Atatürk's vision of a secular European state on the Bosphorus.
Indeed, Turkey needs political reform to break its pattern of erratic governance. To accomplish this, Erdogan should call for early parliamentary elections and, once he has secured a bigger parliamentary majority, initiate constitutional reforms to replace the country's parliamentary system with a presidential one. Doing so would allow him to run for president in 2007, and govern with a stronger hand.
Economic reform, meanwhile, hinges on Erdogan's ability to tap Turkey's vast agricultural potential. Although 35 percent of Turkey's 70 million people are currently employed in the agricultural sector, more than ten million of these people work on subsistence or low-yield farms. Erdogan can modernize Turkey's agricultural sector by lifting bureaucratic and protectionist restrictions on foreign investment, offering tax incentives to joint ventures between Turkish and foreign firms, and providing subsidies to Turkish companies that meet modernization requirements.
The prime minister must also reshape Turkey's infamously powerful security sector. Civilian control of the armed forces was a primary sticking point holding up Turkey's EU prospects. Although Erdogan has managed to diminish the powers of the National Security Council, he still must do more to professionalize the armed forces. He should phase out conscription to establish a professional army. And he should reduce the overall power of the general staff, so as to ease passage of other legal reforms that the military has thus far blocked.
Turkey and the West share a common concern: the scourge of global terrorism. Europe's decision to welcome Turkey sends a positive message to Muslims already residing in Western Europe and around the world. Now Erdogan must live up to his end of the bargain. Turkey -- more democratic and prosperous -- would be a positive force for freedom, democracy and development in the broader Muslim world.