Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Why Turkey belongs in Europe
Ushio - January 2005

What is meant by Europe? That is a question many European leaders have been asking themselves, as they ponder whether Turkey should be allowed to become a member of the 25-country European Union. I pondered this question too, on a recent visit to Turkey.

            But there is a second question, too. What is meant by Turkey? That is a question that history has posed for the roughly 70m Turkish people, following the collapse of the centuries-old Ottoman empire in the early part of the 20th century and the creation by General Mustafa Kemal (later known as "Ataturk") of the nation of Turkey in 1923, out of the remnants of a once-vast and cosmopolitan imperial entity. And the underlying truth about this debate over whether Turkey can be admitted into the European Union is that these two identities, these two attempted answers to the questions of identity, are somewhat in contradiction with one another.

            Inside the existing EU, much of the debate is centring on geography, ethnicity, religion and economics. Valery Giscard d´Estaing, the former French president who remains influential in EU affairs, has used the first two of those criteria to argue against Turkish membership.

Such membership will take probably ten years to negotiate and to make into a reality, but Turkey is not going to become any more "European" in that time, if that term is taken as geographical or even ethnic. Almost all of this large country is in what geographers certainly count as Asia, and almost all its people have their ethnic origins outside what is normally called Europe.

But is geography or even ethnicity really the right definition for a club dedicated to economic and political co-operation? Certainly, it would seem odd if New Zealand, say, or Japan were to apply to join the EU. Those countries are far away from the other members and have many preoccupations that are special to their regions and different from those of Europe. Turkey, though, is right alongside the other EU members, sharing a border with Greece and a sea (the Mediterranean) with Italy, France, Spain, Malta and Cyprus, too. So its preoccupations are shared. And ethnicity is a problematic way to define Europe, for Scandinavians, Germans, Sicilians, Spaniards, Slovenes and Lithuanians already come from a very varied set of ethnic origins.

In terms of history, there can be no doubt at all that Turkey´s largest, greatest and most beautiful city, Istanbul, shares a huge amount with Europe. Under its former name of Constantinople it was the second centre of the Roman Empire, and capital of the so-called Byzantine part when the Roman Empire split into two. Byzantium was for half a dozen centuries not only one of Europe´s great empires but also the most powerful base of its religion, Christianity.

I experienced that history during my recent visit, for I was invited to attend a wonderful ceremony at the headquarters in Istanbul of the Orthodox Christian churches, known as the Patriarchate, to celebrate the return to that church of the bones of two saints that had been seized 800 years ago, in 1204, and taken to the Vatican in Rome. Attending the ceremony, along with this bearded editor of The Economist, were the heads of the Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Serbian branches of the Orthodox Christian church, all with long and splendid beards and beautiful religious robes.

Yet that history has long been under challenge from Turkey´s own desire to define its national identity. Ataturk created a nation that was intended to be secular, with the state and religion strictly separate, but he also did so at the end of a series of international and civil wars that pitted national and religious groups against one another, especially Greece and Armenia (which is a traditionally Christian and Jewish part of Turkey).

Greek and Armenian Christian and Jewish communities have long been seen as threats to the unity of the Turkish nation. Turkish nationalists have reacted by seeking to spread Islam and Islamic institutions throughout the country, driving out Christian and Jewish communities or at least marginalising them. From being simply the majority religion of Turkey, Islam has now become the religion of 98% of the population.

In the EU´s debate, for some people Islam is the strongest reason to oppose Turkish membership and for others the strongest reason to favour it. Opponents fear that Islam is incompatible with democracy and involves practices that contradict the EU´s protections for women´s rights. Proponents believe that bringing Turkey inside the EU will prove that Islam can be made compatible with democracy (as that was, in fact, Ataturk´s vision) and that the EU´s rules will, over the next decade or more, force Turkey to reform its own laws on women´s rights.

Personally, I am on the side of the proponents of Turkish membership, and thus of the optimists about Islam´s compatibility with modern democracy. In centuries past, Christianity also featured beliefs that were harmful to women and hard to reconcile with democracy, but in time those aspects were changed. To bring Turkey inside the EU would be a fine way to demonstrate that a Muslim, Middle Eastern state can indeed live in a western club, and that the West and Islam is not engaged in some sort of "clash of civilisations".

I am also an optimist about economics. This is the fundamental reason why much of European public opinion fears Turkish membership: people are afraid of low-cost Turkish labour, either emigrating to Western Europe or competing from cheap Turkish factories. But in my view competition is healthy, and Turkey is developing rapidly—so rapidly that in ten years time its economy could have doubled in size. It is currently growing at the same annual rate as China. Just as Chinese demand is helping Japan´s economy, so Turkish demand can help Europe´s economy.

The real, basic problem, though, lies in the contradiction of identities. Turkey´s traditional sense of identity has been an exclusive and rather intolerant one: in order to confront its troubled, divisive history a hundred years ago Turkish nationalists have sought to develop a homogeneous culture and have attacked diversity and, in particular, religious pluralism. The EU´s identity is one of celebrating and accommodating diversity, helping cultures and religions tolerate one another. Indeed, tolerate is too negative a word: the idea of the EU is that diversity helps to stimulate new and better ideas.

That is why, in the end, the side of the membership negotiations that is going to have to change its ways is not the EU but rather Turkey. An exclusive, intolerant, compulsorily homogeneous national identity is simply incompatible with membership of an international club like the European Union. Indeed, I would argue that it is incompatible with the modern era of globalisation, whether for Turkey or for any other country.


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