From neighbourhood to citizenship

EU and Turkey

The debate on Turkey’s EU membership takes place between those who want to “deepen” and those who want to “widen” Europe; between those who want to strengthen cooperation between existing members and those who want to create a looser, broader union based on free-trade. For the former, Turkey’s shortcomings in democratic procedure and human rights, and the presumed otherness of Islam, are cause for alarm; for the latter, Turkey’s economic and geo-strategic potential count in its favour. The fundamental difference, says Claus Leggewie, is that a loose-knit Union would be attractive to a broad spectrum of aspirants, while a Europe with a clear political identity, high social-welfare entitlements, and growing cultural homogeneity, would discourage further expansion.

Travellers are frequently disappointed by the weather in Istanbul: they expect it to be warmer and sunnier, more exotic and “oriental”. In his recent book Istanbul. Memories of a City, Orhan Pamuk describes how, in the mid-nineteenth century, G�rard de Nerval, Th�ophile Gautier, and Gustave Flaubert were similarly disillusioned upon visiting the city. Flaubert especially was very disappointed: “Istanbul was not the East he was looking for”. He “preferred ‘the baked Orient of the Bedouin and the desert, the vermilion depths of Africa, the crocodile, the camel, the giraffe'” – and continued to Egypt.1 Orientalism may be over, but the illusion stays with us: perhaps Istanbul is not the West the disillusioned Turkophile in western Europe is looking for. As a political scientist, I can afford the luxury of being neither pro nor anti, Eastern nor Western, and offer only a few remarks of a melancholic institutionalist. 2


Turkey has been knocking on the door of the European Community for more than forty years. At first, questions of European identity were not much of an issue. On the occasion of the Agreement of Association between the EEC and Turkey on 12 September 1963, Walter Hallstein (CDU), then President of the European Economic Community, said: “Turkey is part of Europe. That is the deepest meaning of this process: it is, in the form most appropriate to our times, the confirmation of a truth, which is more than the abbreviated expression of a geographical statement or a historical observation, valid for a few centuries.” Hallstein assessed Turkey’s convergence with Europe very positively: “There has been nothing comparable in the history of the influence of European culture and politics, indeed we feel here an essential relationship with the most contemporary events in Europe […] What, therefore, is more natural than for there to be an identity between Europe […] and Turkey in their actions and reactions: military, political, and economic.”3

How different the optimism of the “Mr Europe” of those days, who foresaw that Turkey would “one day” become a full member, is to the blunt rejection pronounced by today’s “Monsieur l’Europe”: Val�ry Giscard d’Estaing, the former President of the EU Convention, who declared dogmatically that Turkey was “no part of Europe” and that Turkey’s entry would effectively mean the end of the European Union.4 This shift in opinion is due partly to the internal political development of Turkey, and its undeniable shortcomings with respect to democracy, economic development, and the rule of law; and to a greater extent due to reservations of the “old” Union members, which have been growing since 1963. 5 The irony of the last forty years may be that the European Economic Community has developed into a political union, while Turkey has become a more strongly Islamic republic, resulting in a quite different context to that of 1963. Will the end of the story be that an EU plagued by doubts about identity refuses entry to a Turkey governed by moderate Islamists, even though the conditions for entry are better fulfilled today than ever before? And will the European Union call off the experiment in democratization just at the moment when Turkish society and the Turkish government are proceeding with the political transformation demanded of them?

The debate on Turkey’s EU membership, to which both supporters and opponents have contributed serious arguments, comes in two strands. One strand documents a process of European self-discovery oriented towards principles and relating mainly to old members, whose identity is established in contrast to Turkey – as was done in the past by contrast to the “Orient”. Five concepts of identity can be discerned in this debate:

– Europe as a geographical space with fixed natural boundaries;
– Europe as a historic community with a common memory and destiny;
– Europe as the Occident and heir to the Christian West;
– Europe as a capitalist market community with welfare state elements; and,
– Europe as bastion of democracy and human rights.

But, alas, geography is marked by Europe’s permanent openness towards the East, the Occident by its rapid de-Christianization and growing religious pluralism, the famous Social Model by neo-liberal globalization, and even democracy by the fact that universal values and norms cannot be regionally delimited. Europe is not a cultural essence, but an open historical process; Europe’s identity has always been defined in terms that are de-centred and extra-territorial. If the religious factor is to be taken into account, then it ought not to be done so in a way that limits and binds Europe to a Christian tradition, but in a way that assimilates and reflects on the foundations of religious peace in a secular Europe and on the inclusive principle of religious freedom. Europe cannot define itself against an “other” called “Islam”.


The other strand of the debate is concerned with the more “technical” question of whether and when Turkey fulfils the criteria that the EU Commission and leaders of government laid down at the EU summit in Copenhagen in December 2002 and updates constantly. In addition to economic performance, they measure, above all, success in democratization and progress in human, civil, and minority rights. What is taking place under these very precise conditions is a breathtaking experiment in political intervention in a sovereign, third-party state; a regime of social and political change implemented and evaluated externally. It is an experiment that has attracted too little attention, or mistrust, for its affinity to imperial ambition. Seen as the successor to the programme of forced westernization that the Turkish Republic has pursued since 1923, Turkey’s current accession process is one of the most exciting projects of democratization in modern history, comparable in its radicalism to the modernization of Japan that began in the nineteenth century. It is also a good example of the fact that a human rights policy in international relations is no longer mere rhetoric, but a generator of conclusive, possibly irreversible results. It is not a question of how much Turkey Europe can bear (or the other way round), but of the ability of the Old World to enforce civil democratization in the geopolitically delicate region of the “Greater Middle East”, where a situation of intensified conflict is foreseeable.

Viewed in this way, a country’s qualification for membership is judged first by the extent to which democracy as a way of life has been achieved. This does not simply mean regular democratic elections, but also an independent judiciary, a fair penal system, respect for the cultural rights of ethnic and religious minorities as well as basic and civil rights in general, and, not least, civilian control of the military. That provides some indication as to how far Turkey still has to go along the path to a liberal and pluralist democracy. At the same time, it cannot simply be assumed that democratization will everywhere follow the same pattern; rather it will display cultural undertones and particularities, which must be respected. After 1945, democratization everywhere has been linked to the model character of Western societies and to market liberalization. The specific dialectic of the Turkish route is that democratization has accompanied, and been accelerated by, a movement of re-Islamicization, and so ultimately has been based on the desire for religious freedom and cultural autonomy. That in turn allows one to understand the strain that such a transformation brings in its train for a secular, unitary republic such as Turkey, which in the twentieth century deliberately disregarded “Ottoman multiculturalism”.

A second criterion is the economic strength of a society, according to which Turkey is not particularly stable, if fast-developing. But this unevenness also holds true, by and large, for other aspiring members; the related risks are already present due to association through the customs union, as well as to the multitude of transnational relations between companies in Turkey itself and in the “Turkish diaspora” in Germany and other EU states (which are at the same time sources of economic dynamism and integration). It must not be forgotten that a European Union whose goal is to be a social union, with approximately equivalent living standards throughout its territory, bears a greater weight of expectation and pressure to adapt than a more loosely structured free trade area.

The third criterion – security policy – is often provocatively articulated in the current debate in terms of whether the EU wants to find itself sharing a border with Iraq. This alternative poses the question of “old” versus “new” Europe, but in a different way. Do we want a “Fortress Europe” that keeps its distance from the oriental trouble spots, and also from the US, and that deepens its association rather than extending it, in order to create a European federal state with a more or less “europhile” periphery? Or do we want an expanded EU whose aim is to be capable of worldwide intervention, which could pursue quasi-imperial policies and compete explicitly with the US, but with more benevolent goals? The policy of each towards Turkey, but also to Syria and Iran, would be substantially different. It’s a difficult choice, but a choice has to be made.

For those who want to “deepen” Europe, then the relative backwardness of Turkey, its population growth rate, the military supervision of its democracy, the presumed otherness of Islam, and not least potential conflicts with its neighbours will all be cause for alarm. Those, on the other hand, who would like to expand the Union will place their trust in the potential of the developing Turkish economy, in the great number of new (and young) EU citizens, in Islamic variants of democracy, the building of bridges to Central Asia and the Gulf and not least the prospect of a pacification of the whole region.

At present, Turkey is neither economically ready nor, above all, a sufficiently mature democracy for full EU membership. Despite substantial progress, democratization is a torso without limbs; human and civil rights still do not meet western European standards. Religious and ethnic minorities are recognized only on paper, the historic genocide of the Armenians is paid mere lip service, and civilian control over the military remains weak. Take the handling of patients in psychiatry or children in orphanages, or the situation in prisons or the treatment of homosexuals, and one has the litmus test how far away Turkey is from the core of Europe. In gender issues and civil society affairs there is a clash of political cultures.

Mentioning this long list of shortcomings puts Western critics in an uncomfortable position opposite their mostly pro-European Turkish interlocutors. Pro-Western forces inside Turkey find just as much fault with Turkey’s political system as European critics, but expect the prospect of EU membership to accelerate the progress of reforms. Nationalist Turks, on the other hand, regard joining the EU mainly as a confirmation of national power, and view all criticism of the country as a violation of collective honour. Had the start of accession negotiations been postponed or cancelled, Turkey’s pro-Europeans would have suffered even more from the nationalist backlash. Turkey’s unrequited love for Europe can fade into aversion at anytime, while Islamic fundamentalism and Greater Turkish nationalism continues to represent other, eastward-leaning options.

This puts advocates of Turkish accession under certain conditions under extraordinary pressure to be amicable, even as Turkish officials stage provocations, such as the recent suit against Orhan Pamuk, which accused him of “publicly denigrating Turkish identity” because he dared to question the official position on the Armenian genocide. 6 As a result, the accession debate is characterized by a general lack of clarity about what kind of Turkey should be accepted, and focuses – much like in the recent referenda on the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands – on short-term domestic issues. The more important question here ought to be: what kind of Europe do Europeans themselves want?

“Deepening” and “widening” European integration are the superficial opposites here. Austria was opposed to accepting more members to the EU – with the inconsistent exception of Croatia – but wants to deepen the political and cultural unity of the Union. Many “old” Europeans, including Germany after the change of government and France under a weakened Jacques Chirac, shared that stance. Britain, the leading nation of “new” Europe, has no desire for a Union constitution, nor for more governmental and parliamentary power in Brussels, a stronger European Parliament, nor the euro. Like many new members, Britain prefers a loosely connected Europe of different nations – essentially a free-trade zone, but with open borders at its periphery – with sufficient strategic coordination to constitute, in geopolitical terms, a quasi-empire on a par with the US.7 The fundamental difference is that a loose-knit Union is attractive to a broad spectrum of aspirants, including Georgia, Ukraine, and other Soviet successor states, and perhaps even North African countries such as Morocco, while a “deepened” Europe, with a clear political identity, high social-welfare entitlements, and growing cultural homogeneity, would naturally set itself apart from these countries, and thus be unattractive to them.

Paradoxically, then, what the British, with their opposition to “deepening” European integration, are really offering the Turks is precisely the sort of “privileged partnership” that Austria, and lately Germany under chancellor Angela Merkel, have been backing. According to Timothy Garton Ash, the structure Britain seems to have in mind is reminiscent of the loose alliance binding the British Commonwealth. 8 But “history’s ruse” could be that even as the British succeed in improving Turkey’s prospects for admission, the renegotiation of the Nice treaty, which will become necessary if Croatia is admitted, is likely to lead to stronger European integration. Thus, what we may get is both deepening and widening of the EU – something that today seems like squaring the circle.

These observations can be summarized in a very simple (and all too simple) classification:

From Neighbourhood to Citizenship

This article is based on a contribution to the panel discussion, “Only neighbours? Turkey and EUrope”, which took place at the 18th European Meeting of Cultural Journals in Istanbul from 4 to 7 November 2005.

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul. Memories of a City, London, 2005

My attempts to deliberate the "Turkish question" can be examined in full length in: Claus Leggewie (ed.), Die T�rkei und Europa. Die Positionen, Frankfurt/Main: edition suhrkamp 2004, and in: Claus Leggewie/Sabrina Giesendorf, "Konditionierte Demokratisierung", in: H. K�nig/M. Sicking (eds.), Geh�rt die T�rkei zu Europa? Wegweisungen f�r ein Europa am Scheideweg, Bielefeld 2005, 153-169

Thomas Oppermann (ed.) Europ�ische Reden, Stuttgart 1979, 439

Le Monde 9.11.2002

See Hans-Ulrich Wehler, "Die t�rkische Frage. Europas B�rger m�ssen entscheiden"; Heinrich August Winkler, "Ehehindernisse. Gegen einen EU-Beitritt der T�rkei", both in: Leggewie (ed.), 57-69 and 155-158

The trial, much observed in the EU countries, may be an important obstacle to Turkish ambitions to join EU, and even more the nationalist excess after the defeat of the Turkish national soccer team against Switzerland in Autumn 2005.

See Caglar Keyder, "Die T�rkei zwischen Europa und Amerika", in: Leggewie (ed.) op. cit., 274-290

S�ddeutsche Zeitung, 7.10.2005

Published 21 December 2005
Original in English

© Claus Leggewie Eurozine


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