< SWITCH ME >

Friday, 04 May 2012 06:02

Alla Franca, Alla Turca

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.
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