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Turkey and the Identity of Europe

Contemporary Identity Politics in the European Frontier

Constantine Arvanitopoulos is the Professor of International Relations at Panteion University, Athens, Greece. His research interests lie with International Relations theory, specifically the study of regime change, European Politics and US Foreign Policy Analysis. He has taught courses on theory and methodology of International Relations, European Politics, and Comparative Politics.

Dimitris Keridis is the Associate Professor in International Politics at the University of Macedonia, and has also been the director of the Kokkalis Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He has published extensively on issues of European, Balkan and Middle Eastern security, nationalism and democratization.

The Debate: Turkey’s Questioned “European-ness”

According to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding document of the EU (European Union), a state must be European in order to join the Union: Article 237 of the treaty states that “Any European State may apply to become a member of the Community.” However, the treaty and subsequent EU treaties have avoided defining the term “European”. Thus, while it is generally accepted that enlargement is a finite process, the exact limits of Europe, especially the eastern limits, have remained ambiguous. Practically, the question arises in the case of Turkey and Russia. While Russia has for the time being shown no interest in joining the EU, and its case might be discussed only in the distant future, Turkey has been an associate EU member since 1963, and becoming a full member is a foreign policy priority. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey states, “The first goal is to make Turkey an integral part of the European Union.”

The question of Turkey’s “European-ness” as a precondition for entering the European Union is constantly under debate. In principle, the matter was settled at the EU Summit in Helsinki in December 1999, when Turkey was accepted as a legitimate candidate country. Kalypso Nicolaidis, a professor of International Relations and the Director of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University asserts that, “Helsinki shifted the question from essentialist considerations of Turkey’s “European-ness” to functionalist considerations of Turkey’s preparedness.” At that time, the European leaders, in opposition to European public opinion, agreed that Turkey is a European nation, at least according to the Treaty of Rome. According to their view, Turkey has every right to become a full member of the European Union, provided that it complies with the acquis communautaire, or the body of all EU norms and laws. While the full body of European regulations that Turkey needs to adopt runs to around 120,000 pages and is still increasing, the core of the acquis has to do with democracy and the rule of law. For the European Union’s decision in Helsinki, the problem is not the religion of Turkey, which cannot change, but its politics. In that sense, Turkey is no different than other candidate countries, like Croatia. Yet, it would be wrong to think so.

No matter what the official policy statements are, Turkey’s candidacy is intimately intermingled with Europe’s current identity politics and its anxiety about the rising number of immigrants, especially Muslims. When the former French President Giscard d’Estaing, who was heading the Convention on the Future of the European Union that drafted the European Constitutional Treaty, declared that Turkey is not European, he famously made clear what a majority of Europeans were likely to believe. This has become particularly true today with the rise of anti-Islamic right-wing populist parties in Northern Europe, which are strongly opposed to Turkey’s EU membership, evidenced by the success of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Thus, when it comes to Turkey’s EU membership, “identity”, meaning at a very basic level that Turks are Muslims and not Christians, is a matter that cannot be ignored but should be dealt with openly and honestly. Otherwise, if left untreated, it is bound to poison Euro-Turkish relations and accession negotiations permanently.

Understanding Identity

We live in the age of identity politics. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender, and sexual identities have become the focus of much political and scholarly attention. Traditionally, identity was an analytical category favored by anthropology. Political science, a historically more positivist and materialist discipline, has been a late convert.

Identity is often confused with culture. Frequently, it is left ill-defined, open-ended, and all-inclusive. In this sense, identity has been allowed to dominate political thinking in an unprecedented but often risky way. This is because if identity tries to explain everything, it risks explaining nothing. Thus, identity should not only be acknowledged, but also contextualized. It should be connected with other categories, such as class and material interests, and their interdependence and dialectic interaction should be properly analyzed.

Identity is part of the world of ideas. Yet identity is more than an “idea”. It is a widely shared system of beliefs and values that creates a community and the sense of belonging among many individuals. More than its content, per se, an identity creates a collective “we” in opposition to “them”. Forming communities is the most crucial function of a collective identity. Humans look to join a wider grouping because they are social beings. In today’s atomized and alienating world, in which traditional identities are often in crisis, this need is even more pronounced.

Thus, while identity originates in the ideational world, it has real material consequences and produces distinct political results. Moreover, identities are historically constructed and socially conditioned. In other words, identities might be slow in forming, but they evolve over time, as history and the social context gradually change. It would be a mistake to see identities as static and unalterable. It is because of this change that national identities emerged in 18th and 19th century Europe, and later in much of the rest of the world. Finally, identities overlap and amalgamate in all sorts of combinations. Today, the European identity coexists, sometimes happily and sometimes not, with the national and local identities. A citizen of Edinburgh might feel Scottish, British and European, all at the same time.

In Search of European Identity

The talk about “Europe” and a common European civilization is old. Reinforced by the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the sense of “European-ness” was juxtaposed, first, to the lands east of Prussia, mainly Russia, and then to the Orient, starting with the Ottoman Near East and expanding later to the colonized Third World. However, it was the cataclysm of WWII that brought about a Europe that has a new common consciousness.

Europe’s identity was radically transformed by WWII and its consequences. The war redefined Europe’s self-image, role, and position in the world. This was, first and foremost, Europe’s civil war. The destruction resulted in the questioning of many aspects of European modernity. It delegitimized not only fascism and its authoritarian excesses, but also the very idea of the moral superiority of Europe to the rest of the world. Without this idea, there was no legitimizing basis for the continuation of colonialism other than naked force, of which post-war Europe was in short supply.

Defeated, traumatized, and bankrupted morally, politically, and economically postwar Europe embraced a new identity in opposition to both its past and its powerful contemporaries, the United States and the Soviet Union. With few exceptions, this new Europe no longer had global ambitions, and had become introverted. It has grown into a Europe where the use of force, militarism, and extreme nationalism has no place in intra-state relations. This is a departure from Europe’s historical past, which was dominated by antagonistic and authoritarian states.

It is also a Europe where human rights take precedence over state rights, and democracy is the only form of government. Determined to leave behind old and destructive polarizations, this new Europe has promoted social solidarity and cohesion, widely practiced income redistribution, and valued equality almost as much as freedom. While nations have not withered away, a certain Kantian transformation has taken hold, in favor of trade, cooperation, and inter-dependence. This transformation is nowhere more pronounced than in Germany. It is in this way that this new Europe resolved its old German question. If a German Europe were defeated in war, a European Germany would prevail in peace.

However, for the Republic of Turkey that Kemal founded in 1923 on the foundation of authoritarian modernization with the principal goal building a strong state, this new and liberal postwar Europe has often proved an irritant. Although Turkey has held several elections since 1950, Turkish democracy has remained curtailed and “guarded” by an overly powerful military and judiciary. It is only after 1980 with the emergence of a new, market-oriented and no longer state-dependent entrepreneurial class in Anatolia, that a dynamic Turkish civil society has become somewhat attractive to the European postwar consensus. As a result, during the last ten years, several democratic reforms have been introduced and Turkey’s democratic space has been considerably enlarged. But is this enough to make Turkey sufficiently “European” in this political – and not cultural – sense? And, if not, why is Turkey not “European” enough and how can it become so?

Turkey and the European Identity

The central argument of this essay is that Turkey’s “European-ness” continues to be questioned not only because of the country’s geography, demography, or religion, as is usually claimed, but also because Turkey did not take part in WWII. This absence from the birth of new Europe has affected Turkey’s international image, self-image, and political development.

The fact that Turkey participated in WWI but not in WWII  broke Turkey’s long association with the European inter-state system. By choosing to stay on the sidelines, Turkey came to be regarded by fellow Europeans as an alien, Asiatic country geared more towards the Middle East than towards the Balkans and Europe. One can say the same for Spain, but the Spanish civil war is justifiably claimed to be the prelude to WWII; therefore, in that sense, Spain did participate in the great conflict, both physically and ideologically.

Moreover, since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been ruled by a hybrid and eclectic ideology that is widely referred to as Kemalism after its founding father Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk. Kemalism has been proved to be quite adaptive over time. Its basic premises continue to define Turkish politics, and are forcefully applied by the Turkish state bureaucracy. A good way to understand Kemalism is to view it as a reformulation of Ottoman reformism, initiated in 1839 with the Tanzimat Movement and reinvigorated by the Young Turks’ Revolution in 1908. Kemalism is a modernist and nationalist program that asked for the emancipation of the Turkish nation from foreign influences and, in that sense, predated the post-WWII anti-colonial movements.

Kemalism came into being in the interwar period, thus it was naturally affected by the historical conditions prevalent at the time of its birth. Its task was greatly facilitated by the emptying of Anatolia from its non-Muslim, entrepreneurial minorities. Thus, Turkey’s hinterland was left inhabited mostly by subservient peasants and state bureaucrats. In the interwar period, democracy, liberalism, and parliamentarianism went through a deep crisis and collapsed in most of Europe. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism were popular, and fascism and communism were thought by many as the way of the future. The creators of the Turkish Republic were military officers schooled in the discipline, hierarchical order, and obedience of the army; they were unaccustomed, if not openly hostile, to liberal ideals and freethinking. When they looked around Europe for models and examples to follow, they saw Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

All of these models infused Kemalism with a deep-rooted authoritarian streak that has survived to the present day. By not participating in WWII, authoritarian Kemalism was neither defeated nor delegitimized. It remained vibrant and dominant, as an interwar ideology in a postwar world. In reality, Turkey did somehow adapt. In search of a postwar alliance against the Soviet threat to the north, Turkey had to acquire a certain democratic façade. Competitive elections were introduced in 1950 and, two years later, Turkey was admitted into NATO. Nevertheless, the democratization was never completed, and Turkish democracy has remained unconsolidated. As far as democratic transitions go, Turkey’s is one of the longest: it started in 1950 and still continues. As a result, a perennially unstable and hybrid polity has come into existence—while elections take place and freedom of expression is reasonably safeguarded, popular sovereignty is not the foundation of the regime, as is the case in other Western democracies. Next to the people, there are a few self-proclaimed guardians of the republic and its Kemalist ethos. They include mainly the military and the judiciary. In the past, they intervened several times in the democratic process and rebalanced Turkish politics by force or the threat of force.

These coups have made plain that, despite all the progress achieved so far and the constitutional changes introduced after Helsinki in 1999, Turkey’s state structures suffer from a persistent democratic deficit that, especially in the treatment of minorities, can be neither ignored nor wished away. This is the most anti-European feature of contemporary Turkey. Until the dualism in Turkey’s polity is resolved and popular sovereignty fully restored, Turkey will be unable to share the common European identity in full.

Yet, ironically, the more Turkey democratizes, the less secular it becomes. In other words, Turkey is faced with a great and often seemingly unsolvable paradox: the more it “Europeanizes” institutionally, the more it “Orientalizes” culturally. The more it heads to the West, the more it looks to the Islamic East.

Setting the Agenda Straight: Democratizing the Republic

Turkey is not unique in experiencing a religious revival or a populist backlash. Rapid urbanization has brought the conservative ethos of the countryside into Turkey’s cities, while growing literacy and social mobility have opened up the political system to increased popular participation. Turkey’s Islamic culture has long been suppressed, but it has survived. In today’s more relaxed environment, it manifests itself much more freely. Islam, or more specifically, certain Islamic traditions, are used politically by a Turkish public eager to self-assert itself against an authoritarian state and its paternalistic elites. Calculative political entrepreneurs employ a popular Islamist vocabulary in search of votes.

The challenge is to consolidate popular sovereignty while building the institutions necessary to safeguard Turkish democracy from a “majoritarian” belief, according to which the winner takes all and minorities have no rights and limited opportunities to come to power. This is the most profound challenge in every democratic transition. The EU has proved fundamental in fostering the aforementioned safeguards when the Southern and East-Central Europe democratized in the 1970s and the 1990s respectively.

For this to be successfully repeated, Turkey needs a leadership that is democratic and European out of conviction, not only out of convenience. It is hard to specify the disposition of the current government of Tayip Erdogan. As much as he claims otherwise, he often appears to embrace democratic reforms and the European orientation only as a means of curtailing the power of his opponents in Turkey’s “deep state”. His opponents have focused too much on a supposedly “secret agenda” of turning Turkey into an Islamic republic, while Erdogan has been busy with the very “open agenda” of concentrating and consolidating power in his own hands and those of his trusted associates.

The way ahead cannot turn back the clock of history. Turkish society is too restive and too integrated in the world to be controlled and restrained in the good old ways. Guarding against Islamism is legitimate, but the diehard Kemalists’ suspicion of Erdogan and his associates often seems to have more to do with their anxiety of losing power or privileges rather than with any sincere interest in the health of Turkish democracy. What is needed is for Turkey to reinvent its state ideology, and for institutions to move toward a stronger and more inclusive democracy. A starting point for the convergence of Turkey with Europe is the drastic revision of the 1982 constitution. Otherwise, the danger is not only that of not becoming an EU member but, possibly, even of domestic turmoil.

The Challenge for Europe

Europeans should be aware that identity has often become an all-encompassing analytical category and a political refuge for all those who prefer simple and comforting “truths”. In the case of Turkey, identity has been used to deny its “European-ness” and, thus, its entrance into the EU. However, if Turkey’s identity is not fully European, it is not because Europe’s identity is primordial and does not change, but rather because it has changed so much since WWII. The Kemalist project originally had been  European in both inspiration and orientation. For Ataturk, Turkey needed to Westernize as much and as rapidly as possible; however, since his days Europe, the cradle of Westernism, has reinvented itself. The tragedy of Kemalism has been that it aspires to a Europe that no longer exists. This Europe of an unyielding state sovereignty, authoritarian modernization, national homogenization, and Jacobinian anti-clericalism was largely swept away with the bombs and blood of WWII.

When it comes to Islam, Europeans should remember that Islamic traditions vary in tenacity and that Turkish Islam has been historically extremely moderate, pragmatic, accommodating, and adaptive. Even under the Ottomans, who thought of themselves as pious Muslims and derived their legitimacy from Islam, secular law was widespread––the sultans were great legislators themselves and systematically made their own laws beyond the sharia. By the second half of the 19th Century, the Ottomans went as far as experimenting with electoral politics and constitutions.

The Ottoman Empire was itself built on and invigorated by the imperial legacy and traditions of Byzantium, which forms a cornerstone of modern Europe. In addition, since early modern times, Ottoman Turkey was a player in the European diplomatic game, allied with Catholic France against the Habsburgs and, later, with Protestant Britain against Orthodox Russia. Turkey was a part of the European world, the European balance of power, and the European system of alliances. As it has been said, Ottoman Turkey was “the sick man of Europe”, but of Europe nevertheless.

In conclusion, identity matters, especially in today’s post-Cold War world. Identity politics heavily influence the debate over Turkey in Europe and should be dealt with honestly and directly. Unfortunately, “identity” has often provided a convenient cover for xenophobic populists who view any EU enlargement with distaste. However, identity politics should be placed in the proper context while the historicity and evolutionary potential involved are properly acknowledged.

In particular, if the current European identity has been largely the product of WWII, without which there would not be a process of a voluntary and democratically-based European integration, then it is a more open and inclusive identity than many anti-Turks in Europe might want to admit. Turkey still has a lot of homework left undone in reforming and adapting its interwar Kemalism to the present European realities. There are still numerous stumbling blocks along the way. But that’s how the Europe of today was created: at every step, it encountered obstacles and popular resistance. Nothing was predetermined and it took a great visionary leadership to arrive at today’s uniting Europe of peace and prosperity.

Rejecting the essentialist argument about Europe’s identity acknowledges the legacy of Europe’s founding fathers in the 1950s for a post-national Europe, open and inclusive rather than defensive and xenophobic. This is an important policy choice given globalization and the changes it brings. If Europe wants to be a global player with influence beyond its borders, it has to find a way to embrace a variety of traditions, including, first and foremost, moderate Islam, as it is best represented by a future democratic and liberal Turkey.