Turkey and the EU - its about peace after 500 years

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
12 December 2007
I have signed a statement on Turkey and a new vision for Europe supported by a group of us from across Europe. I'd very much like to see Turkish mem-bership of the EU. I'll leave for others the discussion of all the necessary con-ditions which this may need, the changes in Turkey that have to be supported. But there is one aspect which the statement does not raise which I want to emphasise: that Turkey is specifically special to Europe in a profound histori-cal sense.

The statement refers to refusing any “clash of civilisations”. It is indeed possi-ble that the rejection of Turkey could force it towards an alliance not so much with the Muslim world as with Russia and Iran and authoritarianism. Those who think that if we in the EU do not accept Turkey as a member it will con-tinue to hover in a positive way looking westward could be badly mistaken. There is a momentum in all relationships. The fate of most of the ex-Soviet countries and east-central European ones seems to show that if they are not offered the dynamic of entry into the EU then they adopt another dynamic taking an different kind of political and social direction.  Thus in refusing Turkey, the prospect is that the EU could create the conditions for a wider “clash”.

However, I don't think that we should advocate or perceive Turkish member-ship as undermining a clash of civilisations in the sense of Christian and Is-lamic civilisations. I don't think that there are Christian or Muslim “worlds” that can clash as such. In particular I don't think we should think - or encour-age debate about - "the Islamic world". There is an Arab world, perhaps, just as there is a case for talking about Latin America, for all the intense differ-ences of the countries these terms describe. But the great religions no longer describe geopolitical entities.

What is special about Turkey for the EU, in addition to the arguments set out in the statement, is that it is the inheritor of Ottoman power. It is therefore linked to a conflict which has been a shaping force of modern Europe, from the battle of Lepanto and the siege of Vienna to the conquests of Egypt, the landings at Gallipoli and the division of Arabia. In the 19th century when the battle-plans were prepared that set the framework for Europe's thirty-year civil war of 1914-45, they were developed to resist the pressure of the rise of the Russian empire and take account of the weakening of the Ottoman, nick-named “the sick man of Europe”.

As I understand it, Kemal Ataturk's Turkish nationalism broke from Ottoman traditions and its perceived weakness, not least its relative religious tolerance and pluralism. Perhaps Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey should be seen as combining a renewal of Ottoman attitudes as well as an embrace of the con-temporary Islamic revival.

Why does this make a difference? Most of the arguments in favour of Turkey joining the EU about the moral benefits Turkey would gain and the pragmatic if strategic gains for Europe articulated in terms of the negative consequences not doing it. I am suggesting Europe has an internal, moral need to include Turkey in the EU that goes back to its historic relationship of conflict and col-laboration with Ottoman power. Europe is a deep peace project. It now needs to go all the way and make peace with its epochal opponent. This is why, per-sonally, I feel that Turkey is much more important to the EU than Ukraine. We are not eating the symbol on the flag of Kiev when we munch on a crois-sant nor drink its taste when we sip strong, dark coffee.
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