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Turkey Is the EU’s Only Hope


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Founded amid the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey spent much of its first century pursuing a program of political modernization and cultural Westernization that many hoped would prove its eligibility for inclusion within Europe. Yet despite efforts by successive governments, Turkey has time and again been shut out from the European Union. This exclusion is entangled in a long-standing and ugly debate about what it means to be European, grounded in both geopolitical and xenophobic concerns. In Turkey, however, there may be a window for change. Should the pro-European opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the upcoming runoff election, the EU will once again be presented with an opportunity to expand its membership and show the world it has changed. By countering centuries of European anxiety over the proximity of its Muslim neighbor, Turkish inclusion in the EU would offer Europe its best chance to redefine both itself and its raison d’être—not to mention gain a valuable partner in the process.

In a 1919 piece titled “Disposing of Turkey,” the New York Times editorialized that allowing the Turks to retain control of Istanbul would be “another of the innumerable compromises of the Turkish question which have wrought so much trouble in past centuries.” As the victorious Allies were carving up the Ottoman Empire’s territories and contemplating how to seize much of Anatolia from a post-Ottoman Turkish state, the Times advocated giving Constantinople to the Kingdom of Greece, thereby expelling the “barbarian invaders who so long ravaged Europe.”

The dream of “disposing” of the Turks was not peculiar to the Times. Although an occasional ally of the West (as in the Crimean War), the “terrible Turk” was mostly derided and disdained in European capitals as the principal antagonist of Christian Europe. In reality, however, Turks have been geographically part of Europe since the 11th century and have deep political, cultural, and economic relations with their Western neighbors. This is to say nothing of the fact that the genetic makeup of modern Turkey is roughly 40 percent European. Though Turkey and Europe’s modern relationship has been contentious, it’s more complicated than mutual animosity. As Orhan Pamuk has written, in Turkey, Europe has been perceived as both “a vision of the future” and a “threat”; an “apparition at times desired and at times feared.”

Throughout the 20th century, politicians on both sides of the Bosphorus worked to strengthen ties. While some Turks feared this would threaten Turkish autonomy, successive governments hoped this partnership would help to modernize the economy and gain political legitimacy on the world stage. Turkey’s path to partnership was fraught, however, marred by domestic political instability and a poor record of civil and human rights. Its history of military coups, along with the intense political violence of the 1970s, gave serious pause to European leaders considering Turkey’s economic—let alone political—integration within Europe. These concerns were compounded by several others, particularly Turkish-Greek antagonism in the Aegean Sea, Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, and the state’s oppression of its large Kurdish minority. Turkey’s unwillingness to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, moreover, did it no favors in negotiations with EU leaders.

Despite the legitimacy of these concerns, Turks felt that their country was held to stricter standards than other potential candidates for membership in the European Economic Community and EU. Though it signed customs agreements in 1995 and gained EU candidate status in 1999, Turkey’s integration efforts moved slowly, while other nations were put on a fast track. Issues of governance, economy, and human rights, similar to those held against Turkey, did not stop a number of Central and Eastern European states such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia from obtaining EU status while Turkey’s petitions were repeatedly deferred. These deferrals were rationalized on the grounds that Turkey needed to make more progress in developing a market economy and achieving democratic political reforms. Yet many saw the EU’s reasoning as flawed, given that Turkey’s economy and political institutions were more developed and liberal than many of the admitted states.

Many in Turkey came to believe that political and economic concerns were not the real obstacles to integration. Several European nations—including Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—relied on Islamophobic dog whistles and appeals to discourses of civilizational difference to oppose Turkish membership. European reticence was exemplified for many Turks by a 1997 statement from representatives of the German Christian Democratic Party: “The European Union is a civilization project, and within this civilization project Turkey has no place.”

In 2005, following significant, albeit insufficient, democratic reforms, the government of a then-pro-European Erdogan opened formal EU accession talks to the great excitement of much of the Turkish population. But continued skepticism on the part of many European leaders toward a Muslim-majority nation marred the progress of negotiations. Prominent EU leaders made it clear that they opposed Turkish membership on the grounds of culture and identity as much as because of politics and policy. In response, Turkish support for membership began to wane. As Brussels’ lackluster pursuit of accession negotiations weakened its leverage over Erdogan’s regime, the Turkish president embraced an increasingly authoritarian populism, resulting in the freezing of accession talks in 2019.

Prospects for renewed diplomacy in this area appear slim, but the domestic situation in Turkey may soon change. Kilicdaroglu has expressed strong interest in the advancement of Turkish-EU accession talks, and even if Kilicdaroglu fails to win the runoff election it may be wise for a victorious Erdogan, a longtime political chameleon, to change his tune on Turkey’s relationship with the West.

Renewed Turkey-EU negotiations would present both parties with a critical opportunity for economic and geopolitical gain. Turkey’s growing population is young and skilled and would offer much-needed workers to an aging Europe; in return, opening up visa-free movement could counteract Turkey’s growing unemployment rate. Turkey, moreover, possesses robust manufacturing and agricultural sectors, as well as the potential to act as an energy hub in channeling oil and natural gas from Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe. Entry into the customs union could facilitate trade and bolster GDP across the continent, and changes in governance and fiscal policy, which could be incentivized by renewed EU membership negotiations, may yet help Turkey escape the “middle-income trap.” Turkish representatives in Brussels would also aid in negotiations with majority Muslim nations, as well as with non-Western states who still see (to a degree Western leaders have largely failed to comprehend) Europe as irredeemably bigoted and imperialistic.

As was the case in the 20th century, the possible liabilities of Turkish EU membership are also significant. There are immediate concerns over Turkey’s financial crisis and the devastation wrought by the recent earthquakes. More broadly, Turkey has trended under both secularist and Islamist governments toward authoritarianism with its continued repression of activists, protesters, and minorities. Turkey’s borders open new frontlines for the migrant crisis, as well as a path for terrorist groups to penetrate deep into the continent. Yet the migrant crisis and the threat of terrorism are present regardless of where EU borders begin and end, and the flawed economic policies that have exacerbated Turkey’s post-pandemic economy can be changed. Most of all, Turks have repeatedly demonstrated tenacity and fearlessness in their fight for a free society, even with the increasingly high cost of protest. Sooner or later, the majority of Turks who aspire to such a society will achieve it.

The most critical obstacle for Turkish membership, then, remains the complex terrain of European identity and moral purpose, and the projection of these on the world stage. The renewal of good-faith accession negotiations would strike a blow against a resurgence of right-wing populism and discourses of European chauvinism, which ground European identity in ideas of racial and religious homogeneity (and often supremacy) rather than in the cosmopolitan commitment to pluralism, equality, and the universality of human dignity and rights. Of course, the prospect of Turkish membership would undoubtedly provide the right with powerful talking points. Yet the rancor this accession would generate is precisely the point: The inclusion of a majority Muslim nation would constitute a powerful repudiation of those who would define European identity through the parochialisms of color and creed.

Simply put, the possibility of Turkish EU membership offers Europe the chance to become what it has long aspired to be. By formally welcoming Turkey to its community, Europe would send a clear signal to the formerly colonized world, increasingly swayed by Moscow and Beijing’s self-serving invocations of anti-imperialism, that the continent can demonstrate the multiculturalism it has long espoused abroad but regularly contravened at home.

This opening isn’t indefinite, though. Even if Kilicdaroglu succeeds, or if a post-election Erdogan pivots toward the West, Turks may decide that the EU is no longer the best path for a brighter future. Europe’s future, by contrast, will continue to rest—as it always has—in its ability to overcome provincial attachments, petty differences, and cultural biases. Turkey is, in this manner and despite all risks, Europe’s best chance to become its ideal self. Should the opportunity be offered, it must not be missed.

Source : FP


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