Turkish discontent

The EU debate is both anti-Turkish and anti-European.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

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In today’s European Union (EU) the question of what it is to be a European cannot be taken for granted. One fault line is the question of Turkey’s EU membership. Large majorities of Europeans are opposed: over 80 per cent in Austria, over 70 per cent in France and at least 55 per cent in Germany. Are these Europeans simply racists or Christian bigots? Or is this discontent a skirmish in a culture war over what makes, and who defines, a European?

Proponents of Turkish membership argue that the EU is not strictly defined by borders or geography. Instead of shared territory, claims EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, the question is one of shared values. ‘I am often asked where Europe’s ultimate borders lie. My answer is that the map of Europe is defined in the min’, he said early this year. ‘Geography sets the frame, but fundamentally it is values that make the borders of Europe. Enlargement is a matter of extending the zone of European values.’ But what values, and who defines and enforces them?

Turkey isn’t joining a freewheeling, Enlightenment project of progressives. By signing-up, Turkey is committing to an ongoing intensive, intrusive reform process. The nameless EU officials overseeing the ‘chapters’, the bureaucratic targets that Turkey must make the grade on to join, will recentre the country’s political life around the rules-based system that is the embodiment of Rehn’s ‘values’. Turkey – like the countries that went before it – will be required to embrace sweeping reform, change that will not come from below but from above, imposed by administrators.

This is bureaucratic decision-making by committees of EU and national officials: governance without government, perpetual administration and political process without any of the interruptions of democratic accountability. Sadly, joining the EU’s bureaucratic network is as appealing to Turkey’s elite as it is to the rest of Europe’s political classes. Turkey’s rulers have long run scared of argument and change driven by the majority of Turks. The criminal offence of ‘openly denigrating the Turkish identity’ is an indication of a ruling class as frail in its self-belief as the EU elites who today outlaw free speech for Muslim clerics.

What will change with Turkey’s EU membership will be the administrative mechanisms. As Europeans know too well, the EU’s tick-box world of human rights rules is no guarantee of freedom. Becoming ‘European’ for Turkey will mean embracing a EU world where everything is tolerated – except intolerance. Turkey will lose the old authoritarian taboos, such as prohibition on discussion of the role of the military or the Armenian genocide – but these will be replaced by the new taboos of modern Western society.

A burgeoning bureaucracy of unelected administrators and officials will step into the military’s shoes. Turks will soon be able to talk about the Armenian genocide – no more prosecutions for famous writers like Orhan Pamuk. In fact, recognition of the historical event is set to be a compulsory requirement for Turkey’s EU membership, and EU hate crime laws can no doubt be cited to ensure compliance. Europe’s culture wars will spill over into Turkey, as Turks are asked to abandon the past and embrace EU codes of conduct.

Decades ago, NATO members in Europe overlooked Turkey’s military dictatorships and human rights abuses with the aim of cementing a Cold War alliance against the Soviet Union. Today, all EU member governments – even Austria – see Turkey as a bridge between East and West. And in these post-11 September, 11 March or 7 July days, Turkey is regarded as a crucial bulwark against terrorism. Cultural difference and the prospect of a ‘clash of civilisations’ is regarded as a clear and present danger.

‘Turkey can be a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world. The world of the twenty-first century is not doomed to a clash of civilisations, but can be built on dialogue, cooperation and integration’, Rehn wrote in December 2004. The premise of this view is that Turkey must join or there will be more terrorism. This scare story is typically EU in terms of seeking to mobilise irrational fear. The entirely negative content of such arguments is both anti-European and anti-Turkish, in the sense of appealing to backward prejudices rather than a common humanity. This argument can only fuel mistrust between Europeans and Turks, who are stripped of a proud secular history to become Muslims.

During grumpy debates last week, European Parliament Socialist leader Martin Schulz attacked Hans-Gert Poettering after the Christian Democrat criticised EU ‘double standards’ that ruled Turkey in but ruled out (at that time) Croatia. ‘Everyone shut their eyes on the human rights issue in Turkey while Croatia was to be refused the start of negotiations because a single general – one who was plainly not even in Croatia – had not yet been delivered up to the Hague war crimes tribunal’, he said. Schulz retorted that: ‘You don’t want to have Turkey because it is Islamic and far away. Croatia is closer and is Catholic. That is the truth of your message. Let us not beat about the bush. We must apply the same standards to all countries.’

Schulz may well have a point here about Poettering. But religious bigotry does not explain why such huge majorities, in France for example, are against Turkey’s EU entry. In fact, a Marshall Fund opinion survey last month showed that 59 per cent of Europeans do not think Turkey’s ‘Muslim’ status is a reason against EU membership. The religion issue, upholding a Christian Europe in opposition to the Islamic East, in the style of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, is irrelevant to most Europeans. Most Europeans are secular and turned off from the Catholic Church or organised Christianity. In fact, it is the EU elites who bring up religion as an argument, to avoid a ‘clash of civilisations’, and to tutor Europeans (as well as Turks) in the joys of ‘inter-cultural dialogue’.

By 2008, Turkey will be moiled in membership negotiations and the EU will be entering a ‘European year of intercultural dialogue’. The premise of the therapeutic theme is the inability of Europeans, and Turks, to deal with the modern world. Launching the event this week, EU culture commissioner Jan Figel explained that Europe’s citizens were just not up to it. ‘Over the past few years, Europe has seen major changes resulting from successive enlargements of the EU, greater mobility in the single market, and increased travel to and trade with the rest of the world’, he said. ‘This has resulted in interaction between Europeans and the different cultures, languages, ethnic groups and religions on the continent and elsewhere. Dialogue between cultures would therefore appear to be an essential tool in forging closer links both between European peoples themselves and between their respective cultures.’

Commission documents claim the ‘real challenge is to move from a “multicultural” society to an “inter-cultural” one’. But the message is clear: the problem is interaction between Europeans. ‘It is essential to ensure that [the] diversity [of an enlarged EU] becomes a source of richness rather than a source of confrontation… the peoples of the EU are increasingly made up of a mosaic of cultures, languages, traditions, origins and religions. The social fabric of the EU is threatened by rampant racism and xenophobia…. One is afraid of what one does not know. In this context, it is essential to promote dialogue between religious and ethnic communities’, states a Brussels work document.

For Europe’s elites and bureaucrats, those who are opposed to Turkish entry are mired in backward-looking national or religious communities that must be ditched in today’s globalised world. Turks and Europeans who exhibit reservations about the EU will be enlisted in the ‘intercultural’ game. ‘We should get to know Turkey better and Turkey should… get to know European values better. The commission is preparing proposals on how we can promote the dialogue, bringing people together from EU member states and Turkey’, Rehn said recently. This shows the isolated bureaucratic process that estranges EU elites from Europeans.

Opposition to Turkish EU membership in Austria, France, Germany and elsewhere is far wider than isolated groups of racists or chauvinist rumps. Many Europeans are turned off by EU elites setting down new rules of life and politics.

EU ideologues Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens are sniffy about what they see as ‘an emotional return to the apparent safe haven of the nation’. In the new world of globalisation, they argue, nations are enhanced by international networks. ‘Let us start to think of the EU not as an ‘unfinished nation’ or an ‘incomplete federal state’, but instead as a new type of cosmopolitan project’, they wrote in the UK Guardian on 4 October. But the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Beck or Giddens, or the EU elite, is empty. Cosmopolitanism cannot be built on nothing more than isolated bureaucratic castes, elites that themselves share little more than their contempt for Europeans.

The idea of ‘intercultural dialogue’, which fears the interaction of Europeans new and old, shows up elites’ pseudo-cosmopolitanism. All the EU elites actually share are the prejudiced assumptions of a minority pitted against the majority – and only those who sign up to this debased worldview may join the club. The real dynamic behind the row over EU membership is nothing to with Turkey or Europe as such, but is the issue of how European identities should be ordered. Europeans should oppose all attempts to bureaucratically impose the dead ‘cosmopolitanism’ of the EU elites.

Bruno Waterfield is editor of the Brussels-based website Eupolitix and Parliament magazine.

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Topics Politics


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