Turkey’s Place In Europe


The Irish Times
October 30, 2007 Tuesday

Turkey presents a particular problem for Europeans as they consider
whether it should join the European Union. The issue seems to invite
identity questions along the following lines: "Are they like us? Are
they not so different in values, culture and religious practice that
we cannot share a political community with them?"

These questions are in fact also about Europeans themselves: "Who
are we and what are we like? What are the relevant values, cultures
and beliefs that bring us together?"

Such questions cannot be answered abstractly or by cultural
introspection alone, nor only by geography or history. They require
accurate reportage, information and analysis about contemporary
Turkey and its developing relations with a European Union that is
equally evolving. We need to know more about our differences and
similarities with this other society. Nor can these questions be
answered prematurely, since the EU negotiations with Turkey will take
another 10 years and its accession, if agreed, may not happen until
2020, during which time both sides will have changed.

Lara Marlowe’s reports on Turkey over the last month help readers
of this newspaper understand it better. It is a more rich, complex
and surprising picture than many may have realised. Turkey is a
dynamic society going through an extraordinary political and economic
transformation. Having been run for decades by a secular and military
elite inspired by Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist revolution in the 1920s,
Turkey is now governed by the centre right Justice and Development
Party (AKP) which emerged from Islamic movements but is no longer
determined by that past.

It has just been returned to power on a strong popular mandate, led by
one of the most impressive figures in contemporary European politics,
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The party combines a radical reformist programme
with more conservative social values. It represents a new commercial
class with roots in Anatolia and a broad appeal throughout the
country. Its reformism has been centrally inspired by the aspiration
to join the EU, believed to vindicate the AKP’s programme of change
by better recognising Turkey’s own diversity.

Turkey’s national mentality and character are strikingly alert and
sensitive to external attitudes and criticism. This is evident
during the ebbs and flows of EU negotiations. Rapid mood swings
follow negative responses to Turkey’s membership application. The
same volatility applies to the recent crisis with the US over the
Armenian catastrophe during the first World War and the current much
more serious one on Kurdish militant groups based in Iraq.

The existential questions posed by Turkey’s application to join the EU
need a long period of open engagement. They should not be foreclosed
at this stage by those who object in principle to such a large state
with an Islamic culture. We have a lot to gain from Turkey’s dynamism,
difference and location but need more time to learn about them and
decide how best to respond.

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