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Turkey — The EU's Gate to the Islamic World?

Why would Turkish EU membership change the dynamics between the West and the Islamic world?

June 7, 2004

Why would Turkish EU membership change the dynamics between the West and the Islamic world?

One of Turkey's greatest ambitions is to become a member of the European Union. To that end, it has already introduced many far-reaching reforms. In this Globalist Document, excerpted from his May 2004 speech, Chris Patten — EU Commissioner for External Affairs — argues that Turkish EU membership would send a positive message to the Islamic world.

Is Turkey European? If aspiration is any guide, the answer would have to be a resounding yes. Turkey has resolutely steered a European course ever since Ataturk decreed the end of the Sultanate in 1922.

The feeling runs deep — and is promoted with unrelenting vigor by successive Turkish governments.

The legacy of Ataturk — born in Thessaloniki and convinced, despite the condescension of the European powers of the day, that his country’s future lay to the west — is ever present.

And his presence is sometimes more than metaphorical — any meeting in any Turkish government office takes place under the cool gaze of the Ghazi, immaculate in determinedly western suit and tie.

Does Turkey respect our principles? This is where the legacy of Ataturk turns negative. Along with his many more positive achievements, he was also the creator of what is often called the “Deep State.”

He saw ethnic and religious minorities as divisive. He established a key role for the military in politics. All of these were — and are — antithetical to the idea of Europe that we have been laboring to bring into existence since the Second World War.

That was true in 1963, when we signed one of the then-EEC’s first ever Association Agreements — and it has remained true during times of often repressive military dictatorship ever since.

Walter Hallstein — at the time the President of the EEC — declared at the signature of that Association Agreement that “Turkey is part of Europe. This is the deepest possible meaning of this operation, which brings — in the most appropriate way conceivable in our time — the confirmation of a geographical reality as well as a historical truism that has been valid for several centuries.”

Many Turkish observers might be surprised if that were deemed to be less true now, under a government that has carried on and even redoubled a program of constitutional reform designed to entrench democracy, promote the protection of minorities — and limit the role of the military in government.

In their eyes, Turkey has grappled with the existential question, against a background of economic uncertainty and terrorist activity, and has unequivocally chosen the European course. Why, they ask, is that not recognized?

The answers to those questions matter to our own geopolitical interests. How much interest should we take in the fate of our southern neighbor and ally, bordered by Iraq, Iran, Syria and the southern Caucasus?

How welcoming should we be to a neighbor that has demonstrated the falsity of the case that Islam and democracy do not mix? When we do take an interest, should we recognize Turkey as a respected partner, or as a difficult pupil?

These questions should preoccupy us all as the December 2004 European Council approaches — and we will no doubt come to different conclusions. I would submit, though, an example of what I think is almost exactly the wrong approach.

In the aftermath of the conflict in Iraq, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz flew to Ankara to chide the Turkish generals for not intervening more forcefully to overturn the decision of the Turkish Parliament that Turkish troops should not be sent to Iraq.

Happily for all of us, and especially for the people of Turkey, the generals did not intervene — and the parliamentary process was respected. The Turkish government acted creditably. Considering Iraq today, we can make our judgments as to whether they acted wisely.

But what if they had done otherwise, would the United States still have pressed us to accept Turkey as an EU member? Military interventions in politics are not one of our democratic criteria in Europe. We are not simply an alliance — but a Union, in which democratic states share some of their sovereignty.

Turkey, then, lies on the cusp between the current EU and the Islamic world. Throughout its history, Istanbul — Constantinople as it was called — has been a bridge between worlds.

At one time — and particularly when Western Europe was a more savage place — Turkey and the Turks were the very incarnation of the threatening outsider.

But that was when "Europe" and "Christendom" were synonyms. I should say in passing that the metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox church and the Patriarchs of the Armenian Orthodox church, among others, would be surprised to discover that they are outside the Christian club.

The proposition that Europe can be defined by religion is a false one, not to say dangerous.

In many ways, the European Union is a reaction against the idea that we can define ourselves by religion or ethnicity — and thus define others as beyond consideration.

To be fair, the counter-proposition — that saying “no” to Turkey for now would somehow turn the Arab world against us — is also over-stated.

Turkey is not Islam, nor is it an Arab state. However, we cannot help but be conscious of the symbolism, at this time, of reaching out a hand to a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim.

We need to open the debate, recognizing that the beginning of negotiations with Turkey — whatever the uncertainty of the outcome — would lead to a very different Turkey and very different relations between Europe and the Islamic world.

The above text was excerpted from Commissioner Patten’s speech “Islam and the West — At the Crossroads,” presented May 24, 2004 at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. For the full text of the speech, please click here.