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Can Turkey Talk Tough with the EU? (Part 2)

December 14, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

With the implementation of a wide range of reforms and the pro-European development of Turkish foreign policy, the EU has gradually lost the right to deny Turkey entry to the club, according to the rules it set out from the beginning. The former therefore is scrambling to find new hoops for the Turks to jump through, new challenges, rules and stipulations.

Yet to avoid the well-deserved charges of hypocrisy at the leadership level, European leaders such as France’s Jacques Chirac are proposing new twists – like holding popular referendums to put Turkey’s fate up to the whims of the masses. Such weak-willed proposals have less to do with fostering democracy and more to do with helping European leaders avoid being perceived in an embarrassing self-contradictory light on the world stage.

Finally, whether they want Turkey or not, the reality is that the EU needs it. Developed Western European countries will need Turkey’s labor force more and more in the coming years, especially as the new Eastern European countries that have joined stabilize their own economies and become more attractive places to live, thus gradually eliminating the amount of ready workers that can be supplied from these nations to the West. Turkey, with a growing population that will reach 90 million in a few years’ time, is the only country that can provide enough workers to allow the West to maintain its standard of living and radical comfort.

At the same time, the vibrant Turkish economy will continue to grow, with or without EU membership. Yet for many Western investors who (unlike the politicians) are not interested in questions of religious and cultural differences, but rather see populations merely as consumers, Turkey represents a very attractive market across a number of industries. Giving the country EU membership would increase the ease with which such businessmen could invest in Turkey.

All of these developments should indicate to Turks that they have much more power than they might think. In many respects, the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs it.

Foreigners visiting Turkey to buy carpets or whatnot always tend to marvel at the Turks’ skill at bargaining. Well, now is the time to show that Turkey can be a hard bargainer. Most important is for Turkey to retain all the uniqueness that history and geography have bestowed upon it. Through ages immemorial, Turkey has always been a crossroads of different cultures, languages, and peoples.

Even though the turbulent events of the first half of the 20th century have unfortunately reduced that historic diversity to a great extent, there are few European countries that can match Turkey in this regard. The EU has exhibited an almost fascistic tendency towards homogenizing peoples, in trying to stamp out singularities and cultural difference wherever it can. Turkey remains the biggest challenge to this quest. By resisting such bland assimilation tactics, Turkey can actually make the Europeans better than they are- more tolerant of difference, more magnanimous with outsiders, all in all closer to the cosmopolitan values they claim to uphold.

Further, to remind the EU of Turkey’s historic presence in Europe, more should be done to emphasize the lingering Turkish legacy on the Continent. This can most productively be done through highlighting the remnants of Turkish influence in the Balkans, from mosques and castles to literature and lingering Turkish populations. In the case of little Macedonia, for example, a wealth of Ottoman landmarks survive as does a small Turkish minority.

The Turkish government could increase its prominence in the region by highlighting the former in projects geared towards the tourism industry and popular academia, while also championing the plight of the Turkish minority, which faces economic hardship as well as pressures from chauvinistic Albanians to renounce their Turkish identity and declare themselves Albanians for political reasons.

This requires some convincing, of course. Balkan countries affected by centuries of Ottoman rule often feel reluctant to champion that part of their past. However, Turkey could influence them to do so by promising in exchange to help expand Turkish economic investment and to increase lobbying for their memberships in NATO. Turkey, which is by and large looked at affectionately by Balkan citizens, can also increase its European prominence by offering its help in resolving regional disputes.

Like America, Europe is now in the midst of a severe identity crisis. Will it in future be identified by its religious and cultural background – in which case the union is vulnerable to change as non-Christian populations increase – or will it be defined in economic or other terms?

This identity crisis was not caused by Turkey. But the aspiring member does happen to be the only non-EU country now that can seriously influence the issue. Only Turkey has the power to significantly change Europe’s self-definition. Will this change be for the better or worse, and will it, as some warn, cause the breakup of the union itself? There’s only one way to find out.

But there is one thing for sure: owing to its cultural and geographical uniqueness, Turkey as an EU member would dramatically change the course of European history, as both previous great empires there (the Byzantine and Ottoman) once did. If the historical pattern continues, Turkey’s influence would be an invigorating one.

In the end, all of these realities indicate that Turks should approach negotiations with the EU with confidence, as well as patience. Time is on their side. With each passing year, the EU needs Turkey more and more both as a guarantor of economic growth and regional security. Turkey’s continued peace and stability in the wake of the disastrous American occupation of Iraq has been of inestimable importance to Europe. But the EU seldom says thanks.

It is with an eye to this complex situation that Turks should make more, not less demands of the EU. This is well understood even by people having nothing to do with politics. 30 year-old Abu, a bartender catering to Western tourists in Sultanahmet, recently put it this way to me: “yes, we should improve our economy, our standard of living. And we should improve human rights for our citizens. But all of these things we should do not because the EU tells us to, but because they are good for our country and our people. Maybe if we make reforms for this reason alone, and without feeling any pressure from Europe, the EU will want to join with us!”

Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it does have a ring of truth to it. By sticking with its principles, self-interest and conditions, patiently and without being swept up in the media-driven hysteria of ‘now or never,’ Turkey can make the European Union – in reality, much weaker than it makes itself appear – be more flexible in the future.

If such a strategy is followed, and Turkish citizens thus perceive that Turkey is joining the EU not out of compulsion but out of choice, they will be far less likely to adopt an anti-European point of view. Religious and cultural polarization will dissipate. In this sense, the EU in its constant hysteria and panic over negotiations only increases Turkish alienation- thus making a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the thesis of unworkable cultural polarization between the two sides. Ironically, in the end it may be up to Turkey to save the Europeans from themselves.

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