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Saturday, 22 January 2011 13:26

Turkey and the EU: a question of identity?

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Turkey’s possible membership in the EU has caused widespread discussions across Europe. Whilst there are good reasons for the EU to say “hayir” (no) to Turkish membership at the moment, saying no on the basis of cultural differences, as seems to be happening now, does not only go against fundamental European principles but will create an unprecedented distance between Turkey and the EU. 

Despite the fact that Turkey’s economy is seeing double digit growth, has a higher per capita income than Romania and Bulgaria, and ranks better in risk assessments than Italy and 10 other European states, Turkey’s democracy has still got a long way to go before it could be regarded as consolidated. On the one hand, of course, Turkey still has to deliver on many internal issues. The controversial article 301 that prohibits insulting the Turkish state has caused severe concern for press freedom. As journalists privately admit, they impose self-restraint because of fear over lengthy court cases and possible imprisonment for 5+ years. 

Additionally, human rights and rights for minorities still pose challenges. The shaky state of Turkish democracy is further underlined by the troubled opposition that could indulgently be described as divided and lacking a clear plan, as well as  the almost-ban of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the constitutional court over violating the secular principle of the Turkish state. If just one more judge had voted to ban the AKP, Turkey would have slipped into a crisis with an unforeseeable future for Turkish democracy.

On the other hand, Turkey’s problems with individual EU countries remain of critical importance for the foreseeable future. The conflict with Cyprus remains one of the central difficulties in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. Since Turkey blocked access to its ports for Cypriot ships, Cyprus blocked 6 of the 33 chapters that have to be agreed before Turkey can join the European Union. EU representatives regularly criticise Turkey over this issue, as Angela Merkel did, saying that “We see that you are taking many steps and we also see that the Turkish side is not responding accordingly to these steps”.

Even though the Turkish side criticised Merkel for that, the issue is generally acknowledged and recognised to be a problem that needs to be solved. Beyond Cyprus though, France has also blocked five chapters, causing much more controversy. Since the official reason for blocking these chapters is that they will inevitably lead to EU accession (rather than negotiating and deciding afterwards), many Turks feel that this is the polite version of saying that Turkey is not welcome because its culture is perceived to be different and the population is predominantly Muslim. 

In trying to find out if that is true, I spoke to a rather Sarkozy-critical young woman from France recently who argued that France had been an open and liberal country for several years now, but had had bad experiences with the general unwillingness of immigrants to integrate. The implication was that Turkish membership in the EU would automatically lead to further migration to France and therefore to further social problems. I certainly hadn’t expected this reaction, and asked if French immigration policy could have played a role in this; she denied it. 

Apart from the fact that Turkey is a secular state in which there is probably no bigger issue than the division between state and religion, it is true that those immigrants – whether Muslim or not – who come to Europe usually do so as cheap labourers. It is no real surprise that such work does not attract educated intellectuals. The reaction to that objection, however, was that France had made a sufficient offer to its immigrants.

In trying to dig deeper and see whether this was a general French phenomenon, I took the opportunity to talk to a young Frenchman in Istanbul this January. He had been in Istanbul for some months and made a living from working in a restaurant near the famous Istiklal Caddesi. Again, rather on the political left, he suggested to me that since Turks cheat tourists all over in Turkey, “why shouldn’t they also cheat on us once they’re in the EU?” Asked about immigration, he demanded that -- of course -- everyone who comes to France should learn French and become French. He was disgusted by the remarks of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who argued that integration had to be separated from assimilation, which was a “crime against humanity”. But, living in Istanbul for more than a month, he didn’t speak a single word of Turkish. 

Hopefully, of course, this is far from representative, but nevertheless, it does suggest there are anti-Turkish sentiments in parts of Europe, notably France, that base their arguments for keeping Turkey out of the EU on matters of identity. In fact a recent poll conducted by LeMonde underlined these perceptions: 42% in France and 40% in Germany consider Islam to be a “threat” to their national identity. 

In talks, Turkish officials and members of civil society voice these concerns, arguing that Europe violates some of its own fundamental principles, namely equal opportunities and fair treatment. In this respect the current European behaviour of claiming to have the superior culture (if there only was one…) reflects a kind of neo-colonial attitude. By doing so, Europe risks ‘upgrading’ its international reputation from “arrogant” to “pretentious”. 

The Turkish position, therefore, is largely understandable: why should Turkey engage in negotiations with the EU and fulfill all its demands, if at the end of such talks there are votes on whether Turkey should join the EU. In Turkey, this process is perceived as a referendum over whether Turkish culture (and religion!) is ‘good enough’ for the EU. Implying this vis-a-vis any country does lead to reservations about a further integration process – which is being reflected in slowly but constantly decreasing approval for EU membership in Turkish polls.

Furthermore it also leads to a debate about what Europe actually is. Again: this does not imply that Turkey should join the European Union now or ever, but if there are reasons against it, European states are well advised to base them on fact rather than perceptions and emotions. Depending on one’s own position there might be good arguments against Turkish EU membership but demanding that Turkey adapts to all EU legislation only to slam the door in its face afterwards will neither help EU’s interests in the Muslim world nor its direct relations with Turkey.

Last modified on Saturday, 22 January 2011 23:47
Janosch Jerman

Janosch Jerman, 23, from the Ruhr area of Germany, will be writing from London where he studies International Relations. He is often complimented for reading 'all the news.' His shrewd analysis will give you a dynamic European perspective on international politics.

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