The cultural curtain

Europe's tortured debate about Turkey exposes the fragile state of the EU.

Chris Bickerton

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Topics Politics

The prospect of Turkish membership of the European Union (EU) has provoked something of a political crisis in France. President Jacques Chirac is in favour of membership, while his ruling Gaullist party, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), is not. The government debated the issue in parliament, but refused to allow a vote. As prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared that any vote would compromise the president’s authority in setting national foreign policy, members of his own party howled in response that their democratic rights were being violated (1).

Elsewhere in Europe, the issue of Turkish membership has been equally contentious. In Germany, opinion is split along party lines, with the Social Democrats in favour and the Christian Democrats against. And within the European Parliament and Commission, the cautious approval given to starting negotiations with Turkey masked major disagreements between Commissioners. Some argue that Günter Verheugen, the enlargement commissioner, is Berlin’s poodle, and that his support for Turkey is a manifestation of the Chancellor’s will. Given the lack of public interest in the most recent enlargement, where 10 new members joined the EU, it is curious that Turkish membership should be so divisive. As the French paper Le Monde asked, why shouldn’t Turkey be a candidate like any other? (2)

The answer for the rejection of the predominantly Muslim Turkey can be found not in politics, but in culture. European integration has historically lacked any political content, beyond initially serving to contain both Germany and the Soviet Union. As former French prime minister Michel Rocard recently argued, ‘the Europe of institutions was built without any reference to a particular vision of society…. There was no agreement on the intention or the need to adopt such a vision, nor on what it could have meant, not at the beginning of the integration process and not today’ (3).

In the absence of a political vision, the EU has often defined itself in economically defensive terms. When European economies were diagnosed with ‘Eurosclerosis’ in the early 1980s, the prescribed antidote was the Single European Act: an inward-looking move to greater trade protectionism, which sought to offset declining European competitiveness behind a Fortress Europe. In the past decade, this justification has failed to galvanise popular opinion, and the EU has increasingly suffered from a ‘democratic deficit’. Without its niche in the geopolitics of the Cold War, the EU has been forced to rely on culture as its raison d’être.

In the case of previous enlargements, culture was never much of an issue. With Spain and Portugal, enlargement was seen as a means of burying the last remnants of authoritarianism from Europe. In the most recent case, Eastern Europe was considered an artificial geopolitical category, a relic of the Cold War that masked the cultural affinity between East and West. Cast in this light, Western Europe was able to sell the eastwards enlargement as a form of continental cultural reunification.

However, with Turkey there is no similar rationale. Some have tried to justify Turkish membership politically, in terms of building a more powerful Europe. In the words of Turkish journalist Mustafa Karaalioglu, ‘the key for the EU to become at least a regional power, even if it cannot be a global one, is in the hands of Turkey’ (3). Given that Turkey has NATO’s second largest standing army, this argument is plausible, and would seem to provide grist to Europe’s anti-American mill. Nonetheless, it has been buried under the cacophony of voices looking at the cultural question.

It is useful to contrast this with Turkey’s experience in NATO. When Turkey joined NATO, along with Greece, in 1952, it found itself in a military alliance as culturally alien as the EU is seen to be today. However, the rationale behind Turkish membership was rooted in the US Cold War strategy of containment: halting the expansionism of the USSR was the driving force behind Turkish membership, and the unifying force of anti-communism pushed Turkey’s religious and cultural identity into the background.

Without an equivalent ideological unifier today, Turkish membership of the EU has opened the Pandora’s box of cultural identity. But the question ‘are Turks really European?’ says more about the EU and its existing member states than it does about Turkey. It speaks volumes about the fragmentation of the European project – without shared political principles, European leaders are left jostling among themselves. This was the case with the European constitution, when French republicans were at loggerheads with Polish Catholics over whether a reference to Europe’s Christian heritage should be included in the constitutional preamble.

For Turkey, such a debate should raise some doubts about the merits of joining the EU. The strategy of the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far been to exploit the opportunity opened up in the wake of 9/11. Turkish membership has become an attractive idea for European leaders keen to distance themselves from what they see as US President George W Bush’s ‘Christian crusade’. For the likes of German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Turkish membership would be sending a conciliatory message to the Muslim world, and would affirm Europe’s moral superiority over the USA.

However, if Turkey is only able to justify its candidacy in cultural terms, it will always be on the back foot, subject to a change of view on the part of Europe’s leading statesmen. Chirac is today parading as the friend of the Muslim world: opposing the war in Iraq, presenting the Legion of Honour to the Algerian capital Algiers, and now openly supporting Turkish membership. UK prime minister Tony Blair is desperate to re-establish New Labour’s Muslim-friendly credentials a year before a general election. But a changing of the guard in Europe could leave Turkey out in the cold.

In dealing with Turkey, the EU has made a big fuss about the issues of democratisation and minority rights. Yet recent events suggest that however well Turkey implements the required political reforms, new conditions will be set. The sticking point for Europe is apparently not democracy, but a more visceral concern about Turkey’s European credentials. The recent scuffle between Brussels and Turkey over the inclusion of the anti-adultery clause in Turkey’s new penal code revealed the tension between democracy and cultural conformity. Turkish parliamentarians were engaged in a democratic process of law making, but this was treated as secondary to the cultural sticking point of legislating against adultery. Brussels made clear that a positive progress report was conditional upon the clause being dropped, and it promptly was.

If membership goes ahead, Turks will enter Europe not as political subjects, but as ‘good Europeans’. Such a prospect should make Turkey think twice about joining.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student in International Relations at St John’s College, Oxford.

(1) ‘L’adhésion de la Turquie à l’UE en débat à l’Assemblée, Le Monde, 13 October 2004

(2) Turkish press eyes road to EU, BBC News, 7 October 2004

(3) Michel Rocard, ‘De l’Europe, du socialisme et de la dignité’, Le Monde 22 September 2004

(4) Turkish press eyes road to EU, BBC News, 7 October 2004

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