A Mutual Split: Turkey and the EU

 Written for International Political Forum (image courtesy of Today's Zaman).
Orhan Pamuk’s article, “Europe is turning away from Turkey, and the rest of the world”, pleas for a Europe which engages with Turkey on the basis of enlightenment principles, rather than old-fashioned notions of Islamic encroachment of the “civilised” west. But as crisis-hit Europe veers to the political right, Turkey’s interest in EU accession reverts to a lip service cliché, with the country equally losing interest in membership.
The charge that Europe has betrayed its secular, enlightened principles in dealing with its Muslim minorities is almost a truism. Be it the niqab ban in France or discussion in several countries on the outlawing of halal meat andcircumcision, Europe does not at all represent the beacon of social and political liberalism it was when political talks with Turkey began many years ago. Angela Merkel’s self-fulfilling prophecy that “multiculturalism has utterly failed” allowed for a more robust centre-right, which has been overt in barely-concealed nationalist vote-buying. Accusations of double-standards or discrimination are side-lined as a matter of immigration or, with a nod to the recent extradition debacle in Britain, the judiciary – and are thus falsely present as being above politics.
Pamuk makes the easy jump between the domestic abandonment of liberal values to the way Europe deals with Turkey. In fact, in the time of the Euro-crisis, politicians have played-up to fears of the Westward immigration of Turkey’s young, non-Christian population, described by President Sarkozy as “neither geographically, nor culturally, ‘Europe’”.
"Shall we save him?" Erdoğan to
 Gül, the drowning man is the EU.
On Pamuk’s prediction that the right is turning Europe into “an increasingly conservative place dominated by religious and ethnic identities” one Guardian reader represented the product of such fear tactics by commenting, “And adding 75 million Muslims would help this?”.
New Turkish Ambivilance
From the Turkish perspective, views such as these have their own resonance in history that harken back to the European divide-and-conquer strategies of 1918, as the victorious Entente Powers sought to carve up the defunct Ottoman State.
This view of Machiavellian Europe is arguably more deep-set in Turkey than the Orientalist view in Europe, as it forms the basis of the fiercely defensive, Republican ideology taught at schools, revered by pulp historians and exploited by politicians. Istanbul-based Sociology professor Tarih Abbas explains that “for last 100 years or so, the Turkish power-holders have managed to convince the nation that it is under constant threat from without and within”.
Thus, any statements from Europe regarding Turkey are greeted by a public already sceptical of its hidden agenda, thus trivialising the many logical arguments against Turkey’s membership that exist. Pamuk should be aware of that more than most.
Many in Turkey interpret European disapproval with its denial of the Armenian genocide or human rights violations as simply ‘politics by other means’ to hinder Turkey’s power. Pamuk avoids discussing this, I suspect, because he is widely considered a “traitor” in Turkey, following a court case in which he was charged with Insulting Turkishness’ for discussing the Armenian genocide in print. Pamuk is a living example of how genuine calls for democratic values in Turkey are interpreted by not only the public, but by the state, as an attack on the country when accompanied by European harassment.
As an example of where this spills over, a few years ago, I deplored Turkey’s vast mosque restorations, compared to its abandonment of ancient churches, and was promptly rebuked by a friend’s older relative, in colourful-language rightly pointed out that “the Greeks leave Turkish mosques to rot and get EU hand-outs, so why should we!?”.
Back then, it seemed like a great injustice that the Greeks were part of the ‘Christian club’.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Turkey’s greater involvement in regional politics to the East became quite the dinner party discussion. In the opinion of Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, Europe had simply “lost its leverage” on Turkey, as currently only 30% of Turks support membership. An economically exhuberent Turkey has increased its influence in the East, rather than “wait at the door like a docile supplicant” in the words of Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Turkey is now the second-fastest-growing economy in the world, and duly, Pamuk admits, the debate on membership in Turkey is dead. With 80% of investment in Turkey coming from the EU, Turks have not allowed themselves the luxury of being smug, but one market-stall owner I spoke to surmised it for the nation – “It would be nice to join, but if they don’t want us, they can go to hell”.

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