Many Europeans appear hostile to the accession of Turkey into the European Union. But the question is – why? One of the main reasons is the fear inspired by the echoes of the ancient past.
Take Italy, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of Turkey’s EU bid. Italians still use, albeit in a humorous way, an old expression: “Mamma li turchi!” (“My goodness, the Turks are coming!”). This expression originates from Medieval times, when the coast of Italy endured raids from Muslim pirates (at that time, all Muslims were seen, rightly or wrongly, as Turks).
Europeans are well-aware that Vienna was sieged by the Ottomans in 1529 and 1683. However, very few remember that after the First World War, European nations not only carved-up the Ottoman Empire (Iraq to Great Britain, Syria to France, etc.), but also tried to grasp pieces of Turkey itself. Only the determination of men like Kemal Atatürk and Inönü Ismet saved Turkey from Greek, French or Italian colonialism.
A second reason for the opposition to Turkey’s admission into the European Union is wariness. Turks are not Arabs, but despite this, many in the Old Continent still don’t consider them to be “real” Europeans. Even the French president Nicolas Sarkozy stated that Turkey is “not a European country”.
Perhaps wariness is originated by the fact that Turks are, in the main, not Christian but Muslim, and at the present time the European Union is, de facto, a (post) Christian “club”.
In fact, a “spectre” is haunting Europe – the spectre of Islamization. From Spain to Austria, Sweden to France, far-right European politicians are sounding the alarm about the imminent transformation of Europe into a “Muslim continent”, a panic that recalls the “yellow peril” hysteria of their American counterparts in the first half of the twentieth century.
Take, for example, Filip Dewinter, leader of Vlaams Belang, a right-wing party calling for the secession of Flanders from Belgium. He openly stresses the necessity of being “Islamophobic”, and last year warned that “Islamophobia is not merely a phenomena of unparalleled fear, but it is the duty of everyone who wants to safeguard Europe’s future. […] Europe is a continent of castles and cathedrals, not of mosques and minarets”.
Actually, some Europeans don’t support the accession of Turkey into the European Union for reasons other than racism or fear, but rather, because they are aware of current European weaknesses. For if the “no” sounded by a small country like the Republic of Ireland towards the Lisbon Treaty can seriously stall the European integration process, then what kind of delays could Turkey potentially cause? Europeans are aware that Turkey is a proud country, with a strong cultural identity and a great commitment to its national interests. If it was capable of saying “no” to its best friend the USA during the invasion of Iraq, then it is certainly capable of responding in the negative to certain aspects of the EU agenda.
Moreover, at the present time, the Turkish economy doesn’t appear to be in very good shape: this year, its GDP is projected to contract by 5.1% , unemployment is soaring, and several regions are officially considered to be economically deprived. Why should the countries of Eastern Europe (such as Lithuania or Hungary), who have themselves been severely hit by global recession, share European funds with Turkey?
For many Europeans, Turkey’s admission into the EU concerns them not just politically or economically, but also geopolitically. Turkey, with its status as a historical bridge between Europe and the Middle East, shares borders with unstable and authoritarian countries such as Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of Iran. Does the European Union really want to extend its borders to embrace this potentially explosive region of the world? In fact, many EU member states feel that Turkey’s current status is ideal, as due to its location, it serves as a convenient “cordon sanitaire”, a buffer-zone protecting Europe from the security threats of the Middle East.
However, for Turkish citizens, perhaps the question should be – does Turkey really need the European Union? Is the government of this proud state really ready to surrender a significant piece of its sovereignity to Brussels and Strasbourg? A solution to this impasse could be the proposal advanced by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a privileged partnership between Turkey and Europe, making Ankara the main ally of the European Union in the Middle East. After all, sometimes a good friendship is better than a bad marriage, and it certainly avoids the potential trauma of divorce.