Is Turkey “Enlightened” Enough to Join the EU?

Should Turkey be allowed to join the European Union?

December 10, 2004

Should Turkey be allowed to join the European Union?

When I was a child in the 1950s, my parents would take the family for holidays to Spain. On the road south of Perpignan, one could see graffiti stating: "Africa begins at the Pyrenees."

Compared to northern Europe, Spain was much poorer, much more religious — and a military dictatorship to boot. Though it was geographically incorrect to place Spain in Africa, doing so in many other ways did reflect reality.

On the political front, there was the view that democracy was incompatible with Iberian culture and character. Hence, not only Spain and Portugal were dictatorships — but so was virtually all of Latin America.

When Spain's dictator Franco died in 1974, the country's GDP per capita stood at a measly 30% of the European Community's average.

But by 2004 — even before the accession of the new members from Central and Eastern Europe — it had increased to 80%. Spain today is a thriving democracy and on many social issues more liberal than many of the other EU member states.

In addition, most dictatorships in Latin America have given way to democracies. In short, Spain's admission to the EU has been good for Spain, good for Europe — and good for the world.

But don't tell that amazing turn-around story to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, France's former president — and an outspoken opponent of Turkish membership in the EU.

In his view, the philosophy of the Age of the Enlightenment and the contributions of rational and scientific thought define the European identity. And since the Enlightenment did not take place in Turkey, he argues, the country should not be admitted to the EU.

But under that train of thought, neither Spain nor Portugal — nor a number of other current or potential members — can justify being in the EU.

During the age of Enlightenment and scientific and rational thought, Spain was living in the dark ages. It was the motherland of the Inquisition — not the Enlightenment.

Europeans — especially those of Giscard's generation — should also humbly admit that these great qualities of the Age of the Enlightenment have often been far too conspicuously absent from the European scene even in relatively recent history.

For example, at a time when it is fashionable in the West to demonize Islam, it is too easy to forget that the Holocaust took place on a Christian, not a Muslim, watch.

Also, the hideously brutal and repressive former communist dictatorships of the EU's newly admitted Central and Eastern European member states were also rather remote from the Age of Enlightenment.

Clearly, participation in the Age of Enlightenment is a poor guide to determine eligibility in the European Union — and obviously has not been applied consistently in the past.

That is why instinctive "anti-Turks" — like Giscard — have a second argument at the ready. They triumphantly produce an atlas to demonstrate that only 5% of Turkey's landmass and 8% of its population are actually in Europe. Hence, they declare, Turkey is Asian!

As one who was recently in Istanbul — and who crossed the bridge over the Bosporus "separating" the Asian and European parts of Turkey — I cannot say I was especially struck by the differences. These geographic borders are artificial — and using them as a point of reference is disingenuous.

This is also the kind of thinking that dangerously perpetuates the "clash of civilization" scenario, which — thanks to people like Giscard — is becoming increasingly a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Europe", again contrary to what Giscard asserts, is not — and cannot be — defined purely by geographic location. Under this criterion, Switzerland should be "in" the EU.

Yet, clearly, so long as the Swiss wish to maintain their exclusive, chauvinist identity, Switzerland will remain outside the EU.
Europe — in the sense of European values — is not a geographic location, but an "ideal" composed of philosophical, political, social and economic dimensions.

These include democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, freedom, the equality of the sexes, the abolition of the death penalty and torture — and care for the weak and the underprivileged.

Yes, all of these attributes are derived from the Age of Enlightenment and scientific and rational thought. But it is only in the last half-century or so that they have taken root in parts of Europe — and then spread.

Two thoroughly European political ideologies — fascism and communism — ultimately self-destructed. There is a new European mission civilisatrice, but instead of spreading it by military power and imperialism, it is proselytized by example — employing Europe’s considerable "soft power".

When those opposed to Turkey's entry to the EU say this may mean Morocco could be next, my answer is: "I certainly hope so". The proper definition of Europe is not a dusty old atlas, but the concept of a shared historical space.

All countries that have been intimately involved in the development of Europe and its civilization over the last millennium should eventually be entitled to aspire to EU membership.

Turkey is an integral part of the shared European space. So are Ukraine, Russia and other countries further to the east, as are the countries of the southern Mediterranean.

A quick trip to Andalusia will confirm the great impact the Moors had on Europe, not only in terms of the region's resplendent architecture, but also in all the knowledge that was created.

The greatness of Europe's civilization has been in good part its openness and ability to assimilate many diverse influences and philosophies. Ultimately, perhaps that is what most distinguished Europe from China, which for most of its four millennia has been inward-looking and intellectually self-sufficient.

China's current economic dynamism notwithstanding, in terms of social justice, rule of law, freedom and other factors, Europe remains a far better place. But the "Giscardian" vision would lead to a regressive, increasingly inward-looking and self-sufficient Europe.

In the end, Turkey may or may not pass the strict test of European accession. It is not enough to aspire to Europeanist values, a country must also be able to adapt and implement them in the entirety of its body politic, economy and society.

The geographic Europe is in decline — especially demographically. In the next half-century, it will lose 100 million people. For reasons of demographics and dynamism, the EU needs Turkey. And it will benefit from an enlargement that will eventually encompass the great European space that I have outlined.

Turkey has already come a very long way. In another ten years, hopefully, it will have met the criteria for entry.

Imagine in a more distant future Morocco becoming like Spain, a constitutional monarchy — with its population enjoying all the democratic freedoms and social emancipation — entering Europe with all its youthful population.

I may not see that day, but I would like to do what I can to contribute so that my children and grandchildren may see it.

Saying yes to Turkey on December 17, 2004, will open the way to making that reality a bit closer. It will be good for Turkey, good for the wider European space — and excellent for the world.