This year’s Transatlantic Trends, a survey of public opinion in the United States, Russia, Turkey and 10 European Union member states, found that Turkish respondents, who have been less engaged in the transatlantic relationship over the past several years, appeared to be more willing to re-engage with the EU and NATO, indicating a significant shift in regard to Turkish public opinion.
The number of Turkish people who think EU membership would be a good thing for Turkey increased to 53 percent, an increase of 8 percentage points from last year. Those who think NATO is still essential for Turkey’s security increased to 49 percent, representing a 10 percentage point increase from last year and an increase of 19 percentage points from 2010.
“More significantly … those Turks who don’t approve [of] the Turkish government’s foreign policy support for EU membership increased from 32 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in 2014,” said Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) which releases the annual survey.
The Turkish public’s earlier distancing, then warming thoughts toward the EU and NATO can be explained by developments in the region and the world, he told Today’s Zaman, saying that it was before 2010, when the Arab uprisings started, that Turkish society was feeling distant toward the West, Europe, the United States and NATO; Turkey was feeling, for the first time in decades if not centuries, few direct security threats.
“It seemed like there was no need for security reassurance. The zero problems with neighbors policy seemingly had started to bear fruit. Turkey was able to positively engage all state and non-state actors in its neighborhood. While Europe was in crises, Turkey’s trade with the Middle East was booming,” he said. He added that while there was no green light for visa-free travel to Europe, visas were reciprocally lifted between Turkey and several countries in the Middle East and Africa.
“First, the turmoil in the Middle East brought an end to the notion of zero problems with neighbors and then the spillover effects of the Syria crisis shattered the sense of invulnerability in Turkey,” he said. “The Russian aggression towards Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation only enhanced this shift.”
Moreover, he noted that the idea that Turkey can democratize without the EU’s guidance hit a wall with the way the Turkish government chose to deal with the Gezi protests and corruption claims.
He was referring to the Gezi Park protests in İstanbul, which began peacefully in May of last year against a government plan to replace a park in the central Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks. In response to a heavy-handed police crackdown, the protests erupted into violent clashes with police and spread across the country. The demonstrations brought together large groups of protesters who accused then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of growing authoritarian tendencies over his 10 years in power and of attempts to impose his conservative religious values on a country governed by secular laws. More recently, a new indictment arising from the protests accused 35 protestors, including leaders of a football fan club, of working to overthrow the government.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was established in 2001 with a pledge to fight corruption, bans on freedoms and poverty. It has won three general elections, three local elections, two referendums and one presidential election by making a commitment to its pledges.
In December of last year, public prosecutors and members of the police force unveiled some government officials’ hand in corruption and other forms of wrongdoing. Since Dec. 17, 2013, more than 40,000 police officers, civil servants, judges and prosecutors have been reassigned for no official reason other than having suspected links to the Hizmet movement, inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Critics have described the arbitrary reassignments as a “witch hunt” and an effort to impede the corruption investigation.
While these developments were taking place in and around Turkey, European leaders stopped arguing that Turkey is not European and instead started to criticize Turkey for not acting in a European way on a set of issues including freedom of expression, rule of law, media freedom and judicial independence.
In the Transatlantic Trends survey, the opinion of Turkey declined in 2014. Thirty-six percent of Americans and 31 percent of Europeans expressed a favorable opinion of the country, down from 43 and 42 percent in 2013, respectively. The drop was notable in Germany, with the percent of respondents describing their opinion as favorable dropping 24 percentage points to 23 percent.
Turks themselves seemed to lose some faith in their own country — 73 percent described their opinion of Turkey as favorable, down 12 percentage points from 2013.
The Transatlantic Trends survey also asked those who said that membership in the EU was good or would be good for their country about their reasoning behind this belief. Thirty-one percent of the respondents said the EU is a community of democracies that should act together — not a common response in Turkey (16 percent). Twenty-seven percent of respondents said the EU allows freedom of travel, work and study within its borders; 19 percent said the EU has maintained peace in Europe — this was most common in France and Germany (both 28 percent), and Turkey (20 percent). The Turkish public predominantly favored EU membership because they think it is good for Turkey’s economy (29 percent).
In addition, the survey asked those who said that membership in the EU was bad for their country about their motives for this belief. Forty-five percent of respondents said that the EU has harmed their country’s economy; 23 percent said there is too much authority in the EU — both not common responses in Turkey, where the public mostly said that the EU had undermined their country’s culture. Only 11 percent of respondents said the EU is undemocratic, most commonly in Turkey, Greece and Poland — 21, 16, and 15 percent respectively.
When it comes to how the Turkish public feels affected by the economic crisis of 2008, Turks saying that they have not been affected by the crisis had initially been on the decline (55 percent in 2011) but then that number started to increase, first to 69 percent in 2012 and then to 76 percent this year, since Turkey has not been registering as much economic growth as in the past.
Ünlühisarcıklı said that due to a set of developments in and around Turkey, Turkish society once again is looking toward the West, particularly the EU.
“How this change in Turkish society will be interpreted by Turkish leaders and their European counterparts remains to be seen,” he said.
The German Marshall Fund (GMF) announced the initial results of its annual Transatlantic Trends to coincide with the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. The survey results show widespread support for NATO’s role in the territorial defense of Europe, but very little interest in operations outside of those boundaries. Seventy-three percent of respondents in Europe and 59 percent in the United States supported the territorial defense of Europe. However, only a slim plurality in the United States (49 percent) was in favor of NATO “conducting military operations outside of America and Europe” — and a majority in Europe (51 percent) was opposed to it.
“NATO must convince publics in its member states to reprioritize European defense, and it must explain more effectively that the trenches of a European defense must sometimes be dug outside Europe itself,” commented Josh Raisher, the program coordinator for Transatlantic Trends.
He also noted that there is no refusal to take sides on the Ukraine conflict, as 58 percent of Europeans and 57 percent of Americans said that the EU and United States should “continue to provide economic and political support to Ukraine, even if there is a risk of increasing conflict with Russia,” indicating a clear trans-Atlantic agreement on the role the alliance should assume in Europe’s eastern neighborhood.
The Turkish public was more positive about NATO, with 49 percent saying it remained essential to their security — a 10 percentage point increase from 2013, and the highest level of support measured there since 2005. When asked what NATO should be doing, Turks were divided; 57 percent supported its role in the territorial defense of Europe, 42 percent opposed it operating out of area, 47 percent opposed it providing arms and training to other countries — 41 percent when Ukraine was mentioned specifically — and 43 percent supported its work attempting to establish stability in places like Afghanistan.