Turkey: welcome to Europe

Turkey: welcome to Europe

Le Monde diplomatique
November 2004

By Ignacio Ramonet

The debate about Turkey’s impending membership of the European Union –
planned for 2015 – has been characterised by overblown rhetoric and lack
of finesse. Framed in terms of the “clash of civilisations”, it
testifies to the identity crisis of western societies when faced with
Islam. It also reveals the anti-Islamic sentiment lurking in almost
every sector of the political classes.

Some have advanced “technical” arguments against Turkish entry,
reckoning that Europe will instinctively reject the membership of a
large country with a Muslim majority. They argue that Turkey should be
disqualified because of its geography, since much of the country is in
Asia Minor. This is absurd. French Guyana in Latin America and Réunion
in the middle of the Indian Ocean are both part of the European Union.

We should remember that the Aegean coast of Turkey, the location of
ancient Troy, was the east wing of ancient Greece, the cradle of
European civilisation. (We wonder what “technical” arguments will be put
forward to prevent the membership of two other countries with Muslim
majorities, Bosnia and Albania, whose geographic place in Europe is

Others invoke history. The European commissioner Frits Bolkestein
recently went so far as to say that if Turkey is admitted to the EU “the
liberation of Vienna [after the siege by the Turks] in 1683 will have
been in vain” (1). (During that siege the Viennese, known for their
excellent bakeries, had to ration flour; they made small bread rolls
shaped like the crescent moon symbol of the Ottoman empire. Most people
think of these familiar pastries – croissants – as typically French.)

The Ottoman empire, as successor to the Byzantine empire, had ambitions
to dominate the Mediterranean and Europe, a project that was shattered
several times, especially at the Battle of Lepanto in 1521. But such
ambitions do not mean that Turkey is anti-European by nature. Other
countries – notably Spain, France and Germany – also cherished projects
for subjugating the continent, and nobody would suggest that they are
not truly European.

Like the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, which vanished from
history, and the colonial empires, which were all dismembered,
overextended military campaigns wore out the Ottoman empire by the
beginning of the 20th century (which is why it was called “the sick man
of Europe”). Having lost its possessions in the Balkans and the Arab
world, the new Turkey founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk embarked
resolutely on Europeanisation.

No country has ever agreed to sacrifice so many fundamental aspects of
its culture in order to affirm its European identity. Modern Turkey went
so far as to abandon its old Arabic alphabet, replacing it with Roman
letters; Turks were obliged to abandon traditional dress and wear
western clothing; and, in the name of an official secularism inspired by
a law passed in France in 1905, Islam ceased to be the state religion.

Throughout the 20th century Turkey continually consolidated its European
character. In the early 1950s it joined Nato and later the Council of
Europe. By 1963 General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer had recognised
its suitability as a candidate for membership of Europe. A customs
treaty was signed in 1995. Once the European Council meetings in
Helsinki (1999) and Copenhagen (2002) had confirmed that Turkey could
apply for membership (2), Ankara embarked on silent revolution to fulfil
the necessary criteria.

Turkey has made progress in enacting democratic reforms. The state
security courts are about to be dismantled; the death penalty has been
abolished; juridical tolerance of crimes of honour against women is no
longer allowed; a proposed law for criminalising adultery has been
abandoned. In Kurdish territories the state of emergency has been
lifted; teaching in the Kurdish language is now permitted; a
Kurdish-language TV channel has been set up; and four former MPs
imprisoned for political activity have been released.

There is still much to be done on civil liberties and basic human
rights. Turkey also needs to recognise formally the genocide of the
Armenians in 1915. And an amnesty will be required for ex-fighters of
the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to release more than 3,000 of its
imprisoned activists, including its leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

But the prospect of EU membership has already reinforced Turkey’s
democratisation, secularism and respect for human rights. For the other
major countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s membership will
provide a concrete message of hope, peace, prosperity and democracy.


(1) Financial Times, 8 September 2004.

(2) Under the proposed timetable, negotiations will begin in 2006 and
conclude in 2015.

Translated by Ed Emery


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