By Ignacio Ramonet
THE debate about Turkey’s impending membership of the European Union - planned for 2015 - has been characterised by overblown rhetoric and lack of finesse. Framed in terms of the "clash of civilisations", it testifies to the identity crisis of western societies when faced with Islam. It also reveals the anti-Islamic sentiment lurking in almost every sector of the political classes.
Some have advanced "technical" arguments against Turkish entry, reckoning that Europe will instinctively reject the membership of a large country with a Muslim majority. They argue that Turkey should be disqualified because of its geography, since much of the country is in Asia Minor. This is absurd. French Guyana in Latin America and Réunion in the middle of the Indian Ocean are both part of the European Union.
We should remember that the Aegean coast of Turkey, the location of ancient Troy, was the east wing of ancient Greece, the cradle of European civilisation. (We wonder what "technical" arguments will be put forward to prevent the membership of two other countries with Muslim majorities, Bosnia and Albania, whose geographic place in Europe is undeniable.)
Others invoke history. The European commissioner Frits Bolkestein recently went so far as to say that if Turkey is admitted to the EU "the liberation of Vienna [after the siege by the Turks] in 1683 will have been in vain" (1). (During that siege the Viennese, known for their excellent bakeries, had to ration flour; they made small bread rolls shaped like the crescent moon symbol of the Ottoman empire. Most people think of these familiar pastries - croissants - as typically French.)
The Ottoman empire, as successor to the Byzantine empire, had ambitions to dominate the Mediterranean and Europe, a project that was shattered several times, especially at the Battle of Lepanto in 1521. But such ambitions do not mean that Turkey is anti-European by nature. Other countries - notably Spain, France and Germany - also cherished projects for subjugating the continent, and nobody would suggest that they are not truly European.
Like the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, which vanished from history, and the colonial empires, which were all dismembered, overextended military campaigns wore out the Ottoman empire by the beginning of the 20th century (which is why it was called "the sick man of Europe"). Having lost its possessions in the Balkans and the Arab world, the new Turkey founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk embarked resolutely on Europeanisation.
No country has ever agreed to sacrifice so many fundamental aspects of its culture in order to affirm its European identity. Modern Turkey went so far as to abandon its old Arabic alphabet, replacing it with Roman letters; Turks were obliged to abandon traditional dress and wear western clothing; and, in the name of an official secularism inspired by a law passed in France in 1905, Islam ceased to be the state religion.
Throughout the 20th century Turkey continually consolidated its European character. In the early 1950s it joined Nato and later the Council of Europe. By 1963 General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer had recognised its suitability as a candidate for membership of Europe. A customs treaty was signed in 1995. Once the European Council meetings in Helsinki (1999) and Copenhagen (2002) had confirmed that Turkey could apply for membership (2), Ankara embarked on silent revolution to fulfil the necessary criteria.
Turkey has made progress in enacting democratic reforms. The state security courts are about to be dismantled; the death penalty has been abolished; juridical tolerance of crimes of honour against women is no longer allowed; a proposed law for criminalising adultery has been abandoned. In Kurdish territories the state of emergency has been lifted; teaching in the Kurdish language is now permitted; a Kurdish-language TV channel has been set up; and four former MPs imprisoned for political activity have been released.
There is still much to be done on civil liberties and basic human rights. Turkey also needs to recognise formally the genocide of the Armenians in 1915. And an amnesty will be required for ex-fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to release more than 3,000 of its imprisoned activists, including its leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
But the prospect of EU membership has already reinforced Turkey’s democratisation, secularism and respect for human rights. For the other major countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s membership will provide a concrete message of hope, peace, prosperity and democracy.
(1) Financial Times, 8 September 2004.
(2) Under the proposed timetable,
negotiations will begin in 2006 and conclude in 2015.
© 1997-2004 Le Monde diplomatique.