The EU and Turkey are in a wrestling match, where neither side can afford to let go

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The Istanbul professor who is a leading character in “Bliss, a lyrical novel by Zulfu Livaneli, imagines the Turkish intellectual as an acrobat swinging through the air. He lets go of his trapeze, sure in the belief that his European partner and inspiration waits on the other side, ready to catch him. Too late, he discovers his mistake. If the much-bruised Turks agonize long and loud about when they’ll ever be accepted as Europeans, the Europeans seem willfully blind to the Turks. Another crisis looms in the long-running negotiations over Turkey’s possible membership of the European Union, this time over the conveniently distracting issue of access to Turkish ports for Cypriot ships. Because of this, the European Commission has just recommended a partial suspension of Turkey’s negotiations to join the European Union. Meanwhile the reigning pope, who wants to reclaim Europe for Christianity to the exclusion of the Turks, a few days ago visited the Muslim land. So it’s worth thinking again about who the Turks are, what they want, and how helpful to Europe their practice of Islam really is. No clear answer exists to the question of whether the Turks are Europeans. There are just too many subjective variables. There is plenty of official hypocrisy, too. Europe has never negotiated with Ankara in wholly good faith, and Turkey has never been wholly sincere in its stated goal of joining the EU as it is today. But before muskets and scimitars are brought down from the attics of history, one must note that the Turks are already much more European than most Europeans realize. The land of modern Turkey has always been part in, part out of Europe. The Roman Empire included most of today’s Turkey, which has also gone by other names like Anatolia or Asia Minor. The most easterly Roman forts are inside Georgia on the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. To the southeast, the main Roman customs houses were along the Euphrates–roughly where the Kurdish-majority areas of Turkey begin today. The subsequent Turkish conquest of Anatolia, and two sieges of Vienna, has not always meant a historic exclusion from Europe. The Ottomans had strategic alliances with France and Britain, among others. They were briefly part of the “Concert of Europe in the late 19th century, were thought of in decline as the “Sick Man of Europe (not Asia) and were the allies of Germany and Austria in World War I. In the Cold War, Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and guarded a whole third of Europe’s front line with the Warsaw Pact. Institutionally and commercially, Turkey is already deep in modern Europe. Formal Turkish-EU ties have deepened through nearly half a century of intense negotiation, including a customs union since 1996. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe; its well-trained soldiers are projecting European political resolve in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon and Congo; its sports teams play in European leagues; and it takes part in and once won the Eurovision song contest. Arguments that Turks are somehow ethnically Asiatic and non-European also hold little water. Yes, the original Turkish tribes and dynasties like the Seljuks and Ottomans came from Central Asia. Turkey is the most powerful state in what can be seen as an emerging Turkic-speaking world, which counts 140 million people from Kashgar to Cologne. But the six main Turkic states do not form a political bloc and, although not EU applicants, most share Turkey’s ambition to be seen as part of a European or Western culture. Furthermore, the 70 million people in modern Turkey may be Turkic in name and language, but are not so genetically pure. The main influx of Central Asian Turks to Turkey ended in the 13th century. Overall it seems to have added only about 10 percent of the population to the existing muddle of ancient Anatolian populations. Western Turkey, at least, is not much different from other Eastern European members of the European Union, where Bulgars, Finns and Hungarians also have origins in the eastern steppe. Turkey’s Kurds, meanwhile, speak an Indo-European language. Nobody doubts, however, that Europe’s cold shoulder to Turkey is mainly due to its Muslim identity. As a cardinal in 2004, Pope Benedict XVI put this argument in terms of Turkey as being “in permanent contrast to Europe. But Europe cannot just wish Islam away. Some 15 million to 20 million Muslims already make up nearly 5 percent of the EU’s population; that number includes 3.5 million Turks. Europe is deluding itself if it thinks it can isolate itself from engagement with not just Turkey but its whole Islamic backyard around the Mediterranean Sea. In contrast to the narrow defensiveness of some European opinion leaders who treat a “clash of civilizations as inevitable, Turkey’s current leaders have been reaching out to create an “alliance of civilizations. When Europe meets them half-way, as in the last phase of Euro-Turkish rapprochement, in 1999-2005, which culminated with the opening of talks on membership in the union, pro-Western Turks feel strengthened. When Europe turns its back, as this year, the local nationalist backlash forces them onto the defensive. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was indeed once a hard-line Islamist. Yet, reflecting a broader change in the country, he had to split with the fundamentalists in order to win power in 2002 with a new, more center-right party that was acceptable to 35 percent of the Turkish population. He has presided over an economic and commercial convergence with Europe that has put more European names than ever on Turkish products and high street stores and banks. Turkey started its acrobatic effort to assimilate European culture in the early, 19th-century Ottoman Empire. In the 1920s, the present Turkish Republic took Europe as its model for almost everything, since back then Europe equaled modern progress. The new state dumped almost all the hallowed pillars of Islamic culture: Islamic law, dervish lodges, even the Muslim caliphate.

Europe has long been slow to appreciate these changes. In 1949, The Times of London’s opinion page thought Turkey had no place in Europe because it used the Arabic script: in fact, that, too, had been discarded two decades previously. More recently, one of Germany’s ambassadors to Turkey surprised a visiting Bundestag politician by giving him the news that Turkey had repudiated Islamic punishments like cutting the hands off thieves nearly a century ago. A recent socio-economic survey by TESEV, one of Turkey’s new think tanks, shows piety on the rise in Turkey–just as in Europe. It also found that, contrary to perceptions, the number of women covering their hair had decreased in the past seven years. Only 1 percent of women surveyed wear the full black face-and-body covering, and that 1 percent is made up almost entirely of older, rural women. Support for the use of Islamic law has fallen to 9 percent, from 21 percent, and 81 percent condemn suicide bombing as un-Islamic, whether in Palestine or Iraq. Opinion has been liberalized, the study found, by rising wealth, stability, education and urbanization–the same factors that have slowly improved Turkey’s human-rights and democratic records in recent years. Until recently, the pollster’s question “Do you want to join the European Union? put to a Turk was enthusiastically approved as meaning “Do you want to be rich? Support has however plummeted as Turks have learned of European hostility, often whipped on by European politicians trying to blame external causes for internal ailments. Yet polls don’t show everything. Turkey still does a booming half of its trade with the EU and more than half of its 21 million tourists come from Europe. Similarly, the negative image of Turkey elicited in Europe by the question “Do you want Turkey in the EU? is not the whole truth. Change the question to “What do you think of Istanbul? and many Europeans describe the city as cool, or full of desirable commercial energy. Rudyard Kipling’s old saying that “East is East and West is West – or its modern incarna
tion, “the clash of civilizations – is not the right paradigm for Turkey, which feels increasingly confident as part of both. The West is now all over the East and the East is firmly camped in the West. Indeed, Turkey’s republican founder Kemal Ataturk believed that the “East is East idea was fostered by Western powers to justify clinging to power over their former colonial subjects. The EU commission’s recommendation to freeze accession talks with Turkey over the Cypriot ships dispute must be endorsed by EU foreign ministers on Dec. 11. If the foreign ministers back the recommendation – on past diplomatic form, an unlikely move – this would be most unfortunate. Both sides would suffer too much commercial and political damage. The wider Islamic world, having reacted with delight to the EU’s apparent decision to accept Turkey as an equal, would revert even more stubbornly to its default position that it is impossible to expect fair treatment from the West. A pause for reflection seems in order for both sides. An acrimonious standoff with the EU in the late 1990s cleared the way for Turkey’s great leap forward of 1999-2005. A Dutch ambassador at the core of those EU-Turkish negotiations once described the relationship as a wrestling match, with no time clock but no alternative. Neither Europe nor Turkey can “win. But neither side can afford to let go.

Hugh Pope is author, most recently, of “Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World (Overlook Duckworth, 2005). This commentary first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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