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Friday, 04 May 2012 06:02

Alla Franca, Alla Turca

Written by Jan Stöckmann

For the first time we crossed an actual border: passports, customs, vehicle check. It was all very exciting and we felt somewhat more abroad once we were on Turkish ground. Our first impressions? For one, nationalism showed its face right away with enormous flags at the border post. Then, we were surprised by how little developed rural areas are (even on the European side). And when we hit Istanbul we were overwhelmed by the culture, the size, and the contradictions of this city that is literally at the edge of Europe. (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Following our routine, we try to discover some fun facts about the upcoming country. Turkey's economy grew twice as fast as Greece's shrank in 2010, we read. Istanbul has doubled in population over the last 20 years; and the city was European Capital of Culture (sic!) in 2010. Since we are now leaving the EU, we also consider the German Federal Foreign Office's website. With regard to driving in Turkey it recommends: traffic rules are rarely respected. Behave defensively and don't get involved in fights as drivers might react agressively. We comply and drive carefully through the night, towards Asia. 

During our two-day visit to Istanbul we have the privilege to be invited by Okan University and the Turkish Policy Quarterly for a discussion with Turkish students and professors. We are also able to talk to Mustafa and Eda, two friends of our host Jasper, as well as to a few young Turkish people in the streets of Taksim. We have Kebaps, fresh fish sandwiches, smoke a water pipe, drink chai, and cross the Bosphorus by ferry. Turkey on a shoestring. But what about our findings? What do young Turkish people think about the EU and the accession process? In a nutshell, there are three stories to be told from Turkey. The first one is about why Europe is crucial to the Turkish population, the second one is about why it is not. And the third one explains why Turkish politics is more complex than most people think.

With over 100 journalists and academics in jail, the human rights situation is anything but satisfactory. "There is no free speech, people are afraid," says Mustafa, a young law student. When he launched a political website a couple of months ago with a friend, the friend's phone began to be checked by the secret service. Mustafa is lucky to study at a private university where arguments can be expressed more openly. Similarly, the participants of our discussion at Okan University complain about imprisoned colleagues and the general lack of democratic standards. The Kurdish population continues to have a hard time, too, as the government refuses to accept them as a minority. Professor Ayakon describes the situation as a "deadlock". As a consequence of all the human rights assaults, Professor Alemdar argues that orientation towards Europe is definitely needed. "Europe can and should be a norm exporter," she says. There are numerous other examples of how the military, the judiciary, and the political elite abuse their powers in the supposedly secular, democratic state. As part of the accession process these questions must be addressed. So the first story is: the EU is important for Turkey because it has the capacity to push the country towards better human rights standards.

Turkey is trying to find its place in international relations and is carefully balancing its interests in its neighbouring countries. Europe is by no means the only candidate for strategic alliances.

The second insight is fairly obvious, but crucial to the question of Turkey and the EU. Mustafa puts it in simple terms: "What can the EU deliver to us economically?" He doesn't understand how his country, which has been performing outstandingly in recent years, could possibly benefit from being member of a struggling economic area. Young Turkish people compare themselves with Greeks and look down on their situation. "Why join the euro which has brought down Greece?" asks Ömer. So economically speaking, Turkey doesn't need Europe. In addition to that, Turkish people are fed up with waiting. Especially young Turks believe that European leaders have treated Turkey as a toy. But not only the population is unsure about the accession process - Turkish politicians seem ambivalent as well. It is unclear where Erdoğan and the AKP are heading. Quite a few believe that they are not serious about joining the EU at all. Turkey is trying to find its place in international relations and is carefully balancing its interests in its neighbouring countries. Europe is by no means the only candidate for strategic alliances. The second story, therefore, is: The EU might not be so important for Turkey after all, as Turkey becomes economically and politically more mature.

Think you have understood the Turkish case? Not in the slightest. Jasper puts it nicely: "I have been in Istanbul for more than two months now and still haven't even slightly grasped what there is to know about Turkish politics. It's simply too complex." Here are some of the reasons why: for a start, Istanbul is very different from rural areas. And again, the East is different from the West. Then, think of the power of the military and the judiciary power which are traditionally strong, especially due to their rule in numerous coups. Consider the Islamic movements, most prominently the one founded by Fethullah Gülen that is gaining more control in public administration and owns over 1000 schools. Think of Islamic tendencies of women in Erdogan's AKP. Take into account Turkey's unreliability in international relations. And so on and so forth. It is extremely hard to figure out who is responsible and who holds the power. So the last story is about complexity. This goes for every country, one might argue. But for Turkey we feel it in particular; so we have to apologise and add this disclaimer to the two other stories. Fully understanding Turkey in three days is slightly too ambitious.

Last modified on Sunday, 06 May 2012 15:09

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