Bringing Turkey to Europe's door has been Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's epochal achievement. So why, over the four years since Turkey opened formal negotiations to join the European Union, has he seemed to have lost interest in his grand project? With his AK Party's thumping parliamentary majority, Erdogan had a chance to integrate his country into the EU and reform the Constitution in a way that would create a real democracy—for instance, by overhauling the Constitution to protect elected parties and officials from interference from politicized prosecutors. But instead of integrating Turkey into Europe, he has spent more energy over the last couple of years pursuing Turkey's Middle East diplomacy and, most recently, aggressively attacking Israel's invasion of Gaza. And instead of reforming the Constitution, he's chosen to leave largely intact a system born in a 1980 military coup that left the Army with extraordinary powers over elected officials.
Erdogan's opponents say the reason behind the loss of momentum is that he was never serious about the EU process and was using the Brussels-mandated reforms to push through a religious agenda. AK Party leaders counter that reforms stalled because the party has been repeatedly ambushed by a series of judicial challenges to its democratic authority. The first came in 2007 with an attempt to block the appointment of AK stalwart Abdullah Gül as president, which forced fresh elections that Gül won. The next year, the Constitutional Court tried again, attempting to close the AK Party for trying to scrap a ban on religious headscarves in universities.
But those obstacles are past, and Erdogan is running out of excuses. Opposition to Turkish accession to the EU is stiffening in several countries, and at home Erdogan's long run of political success is unlikely to continue indefinitely. This year could mark his last chance to prove to Brussels, and to skeptics inside Turkey, that he's serious about joining Europe and transforming Turkey into a functional democracy. Egemen Bagis, Turkey's minister for European Union affairs, insists that "relations with the EU will be a major priority" in coming months, noting that Erdogan is "determined to go ahead" with constitutional changes that would guarantee individuals' rights to appeal to the Constitutional Court, introduce an ombudsman to squash politically motivated prosecutions and create new laws to protect nonviolent political parties from getting shut down by the courts.
The problem is that if done properly, attempts to introduce those laws would put Erdogan on a collision course with the courts, as well as the Army and bureaucracy—unelected institutions that see themselves as the guardians of Turkey's secular state and see the Islamist-rooted AK Party as a threat. Last summer's attempt by the Constitutional Court to ban the party ended in a delicate draw, with the court unwilling to throw the country into turmoil by banning Turkey's ruling party, its president and prime minister from politics. But Erdogan emerged chastened and apparently unwilling to risk another debilitating battle with the judges and the generals.
This standoff has tied Turkey up in knots. After all, constitutional reform is about more than pleasing Brussels—it's about making the country's democracy functional and putting to rest the specter of constant attacks on democratically elected governments and parties from the unelected judiciary. Yet it's still not clear if Erdogan has the political will to move forward with the reforms. If AK keeps its healthy nationwide majority in municipal elections in March, the temptation for Erdogan to do nothing could grow—which may be fatal to the EU project. Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul's Galatasaray University, says if Erdogan emerges stronger from the elections he could "be more arrogant and less willing" to introduce reforms.
In March, Gül headed to Brussels for a state visit, bearing the message that Turkey is ready to renew its commitment to Europe. But the real question is whether Erdogan has the political courage to make common cause with the opposition and introduce the radical constitutional changes needed to lay to rest the ghosts of the 1980 military coup and the deeply undemocratic Constitution it spawned. So far, Erdogan's political survival has been a remarkable feat of political tactics. This is his chance to prove that he's in the business of making history, too.