Turkish drift

by Terence MacNamee

In a recent article in the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, journalist Thomas Fuster writes about Turkey and about how the country seems to be drifting away from Europe for good.

There was great talk about Turkey’s desire to enter the European Union ten or more years ago. Well-known Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who should have known better, wrote a much-translated article advocating the country’s admission, in view of the fact that Ireland was conservative and backward before it joined but had improved since, so what reason was there to keep out the Turks? This was remarkably silly, as there was no real comparison, no real knowledge of Turkey in the article, no appreciation of the difference between the two countries, nothing, in fact, except the usual Irish writer’s desire to run down his own country. That was in 2003. But at the time it seemed something like a test of Europe’s openness and liberalism as to whether the Union would expand to let in the first Moslem state into what had been a traditionally Christian regional club.

Historically, Europe had always defined itself in opposition to the Islamic world, which was a threat on its periphery. As soon as Europe got rid of the Moslems on its Western flank in Spain, they regrouped to take over the former Byzantine territory, Greece, and the Balkans. Indeed, the warlike encounter with the non-Christian “heathens” prepared Europeans for their voyages of discovery associated with dreams of world conversion and world conquest involving other heathens.

In his article Fuster points out that, just as Turkey has geographically been both in Asia and Europe, it has never ceased to be torn between the secular modernism of Atatürk and the nostalgia for the Moslem Middle Eastern world most recently purveyed by Erdogan. He quotes with approval Turkish historian Selim Deringil as saying: “When an identity crisis lasts for 200 years, it is no longer a crisis, but an identity.” In other words, the centrifugal, contradictory desires for a modern European-style nation-state and for the greatness of the Ottoman past are what make Turkey the peculiar country it is.

Fuster looks back over the history of the Turkish candidacy. The talks, which have been sputtering on for ten years, are supposed to bring the candidate countries closer to the EU, but with Turkey the opposite has happened. Turkey now meets fewer EU standards than when it started. This is due to the political evolution under Erdogan. On the other hand, Europe itself is suffering from what Fuster calls “enlargement fatigue”. And popular feeling does not seem to be as open to letting in a Moslem country as it once may have been.

Yet Europe, Fuster says, needs to have a partner it can rely on on its southeastern flank. The Middle East is engulfed in turmoil again, and Europe gets to feel the consequences in terms of refugees in the Mediterranean. “It is not enough to recall Turkey’s role as a bridge between the West and the Moslem world only during acute crises, like at the present”, he observes. Turkey and Europe need to talk to each other and mend their relationship. “The current paralysis suits only the troublemakers in the Middle East – and neither Ankara nor Brussels can afford that.”

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