Amidst the European Union’s many problems, from the tanking of the economies of a number of its poorer member states to trying to prop up the euro, an issue from its hoary past continues to gnaw at the fringes of its collective consciousness.
Is Turkey a part of Europe or not, and if it is, should it receive EU membership?
The issue has bedeviled EU-Turkish relations for decades, rooted as it is in centuries of mutual admiration, apprehension, and out and out fear.
The question however is one that should occupy the best and brightest minds in Brussels however, as its ultimate resolution will reverberate loudly throughout the Muslim world.
The discussions mirror in an odd way those involving Russia beginning in the early 18th century, when Tsar Peter the Great began to refashion the oriental state of Muscovy to something approaching his vision of what a proper European state should look like.
Determined to investigate things for himself, in 1697 he traveled “incognito” to Europe on an 18-month journey as “Peter Mikhailovich” attached to the “Grand Embassy” to see Europe for himself firsthand, though a six foot-eight inch delegation member to whom everyone deferred was probably a rather poor disguise.
Appalling his subjects by being the first Russian ruler to journey to the heretical West, Peter upon his return set about reordering his country with aplomb, and after the Russian capture of Paris at the end of the Napoleonic wars, much less the capture of Berlin in 1945, not too many people questioned Russia’s geographical status as part of Europe, though the vast majority of its territory, east of the Ural mountains, remains in Asia.
Turkey occupies a role similar to Russia. Like the former Evil Empire, Turkey sits athwart two continents, though the bulk of its territory lies not in Europe, but its Anatolian heartland in Asia. Similarly like Russia, whose armies came within a hairsbreadth of capturing Berlin in 1762 before the sudden death in 1762 of Tsaritsa Elizabeth, Peter’s daughter, in the late 17th century Ottoman armies twice besieged Vienna, and few Austrians today dunking their bellowed croissants into their kaffee mit schlag remember that legend has it that their favorite pastry’s shape originated in the crescent moons emblazoned upon their besieger’s flags.
Furthermore, the debris field of the ebb tide of the Ottoman advance into left its influence in the Balkans, where Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia retain significant Muslim populations.
But it is perhaps the virility of the Ottoman Turkish advance into the heartlands of Eastern Europe that now sees the EU ambivalent about Turkish membership. Turkey first applied for associate membership in the European Economic Community in 1959, formally upgrading its request for EU membership in 1987.
Despite Ankara’s interest however, the application has remained stalled, despite the fact that Turkey has made repeated changes to its political and economic systems to advance its case. In the interim, it has seen former Soviet republics and communist Eastern European states leapfrog ahead of it, as in 2004, the EU allowed the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia to join the Union, to be joined three years later by Romania and Bulgaria.
Speaking of imperial debris fields, in 2004 Cyprus also joined the EU, thirty years after Turkey felt compelled to invade the island to protect its Turkish minority.
And the divided and troubled island is at the heart of the issue of Turkish accession to the EU today. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said earlier this week that allowing the Republic Cyprus to assume the rotating EU presidency in July 2012 without a unification deal for the divided island would “freeze” relations between Turkey and the European bloc.
Davutoglu, a suave and sophisticated man highly regarded for his diplomatic skills, said, “We do not believe that Turkey and the EU can continue relations in a case where the Greek Cypriot side assumes the EU term presidency before a solution is found in Cyprus. I told (EU Commissioner Stefan) Fuele that we should therefore take measures (to solve the Cyprus issue) from now on.”
European atavistic fears of an Ottoman redux takeover of Europe aside, the EU is facing three upcoming fundamental issues that Turkish membership could help solve.
The first is the rapid aging of Europe’s population and the consequent lack of a future labor force to pay into social funds to provide for the relatively luxurious retirement benefits that Europeans have come to regard as their birthright. Access to Turkey’s young and dynamic labor pool would be a solution to providing a workforce capable of sustaining the European welfare state.
Secondly, European energy needs are best met by a diversification of resources, and Turkey’s geography makes it an ideal “energy corridor” for the hydrocarbon riches of Iran and Central Asia to flow westwards to European markets.
Last but not least is the fact that Europe is eventually going to need an interlocutor with the Muslim world, which not only occupies the south shore of the Mediterranean but a vast swath of territory from the Atlantic to Xinjiang. Turkey is not only a secular republic, but has been a democratic state for nearly 80 years, the sole Muslim state to have absorbed “Western” democratic values.
But European views of Turkey are not only colored by deep-rooted historical fears, which have been intensified since 9/11 by fears of Islam as a ‘terrorist” culture, there is a fear that Turkish membership in the EU would lead to hordes of scarf wearing, baggy-trousered women and their offspring, not to mention their husbands, flooding into Europe by the millions, drowning native “European” culture.
Interestingly enough, similar terrors of labor migration were voiced in late 1991 following the implosion of the USSR. As a minor historical aside, one should remember that the EU now contains the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria and their demographic shifts have yet to lead to “Europeans” seeing goulash and cabbage joints on every other street corner.
At the end of the day, in a world of globalization Europe is going to have to resolve the abovementioned issues, if for no other reason than to maintain its own-own standards of living. Classical antiquity defined Asia as beginning on the eastern shore of the Hellespont – Turkey now controls both sides of the passage.
Time to consider letting them in, for real.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com