Turkey and the EU: Will the Europeans pop the question?

Ceylan Ozbudak
Ceylan Ozbudak
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On Nov. 5, the Turkish Minister for European Union Affairs, Egemen Bağış, was in Belgium to open a new chapter in EU-Turkey relations after a hiatus of forty months. Bağış made a joke about Turkey’s admission to the EU: “I want to note that Stefan [Fule] said, we need more engagement. Stefan, I want to assure you, we are ready not only to get engaged but also married, which is metaphorically, full membership, thank you!”

Turkey’s journey in joining the EU resembles a long-term relationship, where she pushes for marriage, but he has no intention of getting down on his knees to propose. No one can deny the relationship: there are 6 million Turks living in Europe, and Turkey’s admission process started 50 years ago, but the groom-to -be has reservations and he can never quite bring himself to commit. To understand whether he will ever pop the question or not, we need to examine all factors of commitment.

Today, fascist movements are spreading like wildfire in the European heartland – most notably in Germany, Austria, the UK and Greece. Although it appears to some that these philosophies are confined to a few fringe groups, the subtle influence of this xenophobic mind is pervading European pop culture and exercising influence even in government halls.

It is clear that Turkey’s accession to the EU and the great “alliance of civilizations” that would emerge from such a union would not be just a casual favour to Turkey. No man is an island.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Police checkpoints all over the continent show that racism is alive and well in Europe, wherever the rubber meets the road. For instance, for all of Germany’s celebrated status as a chastened post war model of political correctness, German police employ an unwritten policy of “racial profiling” at roadside checkpoints whereby they subject immigrants to oppressive and discriminatory controls under the pretext of fighting illegal immigration. Africans, especially, are subject to discrimination in Germany, not only from far-right extremists, but across the political spectrum. In the UK, the English Defense League routinely stages protests, which target Muslims with messages of hatred, and a major part of the media is fuelling these sentiments. The scale of threats against Muslims, especially over the Internet, is becoming more and more serious by the day.

The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which has gotten only more popular in the last elections, has based its entire election campaign on a platform, which opposes the presence of “foreigners and Islam”. So much for the human rights and the free exercise of religion! These enlightened humanitarians oppose social aid to immigrants living in Europe, and would deny housing and child support to disfavored women and children on the basis of national origin and religion. They also push for a policy of deportation to immigrants and who have been unemployed for more than a year. Finally, there is Greece, where the Golden Dawn Party is infamous for its provocative and violent actions against immigrants.
In sum: For all its pretense of liberality and sympathy to human rights, the member states of the European Union are plagued with the same virulent nationalism which gave us two world wars over the last 100 years. Consequently, the EU is entering the 21st century as the same deeply xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and conflicted patchwork of Balkan and balkanized states it was in 1914.

Commitment Factor 2: Being able to appreciate her

With its established political institutions, liberal trade policies, and economic progress, Turkey’s accession to the EU would be a great benefit to Europe as a whole. Out of all the European nations, Turkey has the most liberal trade policies on the continent, and in fact, it enjoys the distinction of being the only country in Europe, which is not dependent in some way on the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

According to the IMF, Turkey’s GDP growth rate of 8.5% makes it one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Consequently, while Turkey’s credit score keeps going up, other European countries are powerless to keep their credit ratings from being slashed over and over again. In fact, as the sixth largest economy in Europe, and the 17th largest in the world, Turkey enjoys a growth rate other European countries can only dream of, and this is the same story, industry by industry:

Turkey is the one of the largest steel producers in the world, second in Europe, and its construction industry is second only to China.

Turkey is the seventh most visited country in the world, and Turkish Airlines is one of the fastest growing airlines in the world. On top of that, Turkey just initiated the world’s second largest airport project, which will make it the most popular gateway between Europe and Asia.

These and many other positive features of Turkey’s various industries –put Turkey in a good position to expand the European market to a new area of 76 million people, and to help the EU’s economy get back on its feet. Direct investment opportunities and subsidies for EU companies in Turkey would also be instrumental to help them gain easier access to Middle Eastern and Asian markets.

Turkey has a very young population compared to the EU nations, with almost half of all Turks being under the age of 29. By 2050, the EU will need an additional workforce of 100 million people, which makes Turkey even more valuable as a source of young and qualified labor. Considering that Europe is getting older by the year, Turkey’s youth alone would contribute a surge of much-needed dynamism and productivity to the moribund continent.

Commitment Factor 3: The fear of limiting freedoms

Way back in 2003, an article in a British newspaper warned about a growing fear that the U.K. was on a fast track to becoming an Islamic nation. That was just ten years ago, and it seemed far-fetched at the time. Now, the British government has published a study with data that shows Islam will become the dominant religion within the next generation. The recent survey shows that while Christianity remains the dominant religion in the U.K. (at over 50% of general population listing themselves as nominally Christian) the Muslim population in Britain is growing so rapidly that Islam is predicted to overtake Christianity within 20 years. This would not be a problem if Europe had not been experiencing increasing problems with its Muslim populations because of the ultra-conservative lifestyle the majority of them practice. When Muslims start to create their own ghettos; when they cut ties with the rest of the population; when they refuse to work on Fridays; when they insist on wearing clothes fit for a desert climate; when they are offended by non-Muslim holidays; when they refuse to respect sculptures and artistic objects on the streets, they become a cause of turmoil in the general population. Under these circumstances, our groom-to-be takes a step back and reconsiders if he ever wants a Muslim bride – Turkey.

What Europe is failing to see is, the form of Islam Turks mainly follow is a very tolerant, peaceful, tradition, which is devoid of any sectarian bias or prejudice towards non-Muslims. This tolerant iteration of Islam creates a safe harbor, both for women wearing headscarves and for women wearing bikinis in Turkey – none of whom are questioned for their piety. Unlike many mosques in Europe, Turkey’s mosques are open to people of all faiths and is also accommodating to people who are not religious at all.

In reference to the fear of Islamic radicalism, Europe would do well to recognize that Turkey’s Islam is not the disease, but actually, the antidote to the virulent Wahhabist strain, which is troubling the continent today. This realization is the key to Europe’s ability to purge itself of the paranoia that treats Turkey’s accession as some kind of threat. On the contrary, to admit Turkey would eliminate the prejudice which keeps all sides from enjoying the benefits that full union would bring.

Commitment factor 4: Being able to build a future together

At its very foundation, the Republic of Turkey chose to align itself with the modern West, by the lead of its great founder, Ataturk. Turkey’s pending application to European Union flows out of that foundational choice. In the meantime, Turkey works to build unity amongst Islamic countries in a spirit of solidarity with all its neighbours. It should be noted that Turkey is going through the longest negotiation process ever in the history of the EU, having begun the process back in 1959 with its application to the EEC. Under these circumstances, it would be expedient for all concerned to speed up the process of Turkey’s full accession to the EU .

Turkey has done its part painstakingly and is continuing to do so. Nevertheless, what is asked of Turkey will eventually help Turkey, in terms of democracy, liberty and freedom of thought; thus, there is nothing to lose.

Our government is committed to this goal, and indeed to a great extent it has succeeded. For that very reason, it is all the more important to keep that sense of determination, given all the effort and progress that has been made. Building warm relations with Christian and Jewish communities; maintaining contact with civil society groups to receive the support of nations; striving for better ties with Israel, and making sure that people of every faith and background feel embraced and loved, are all crucial to Turkey’s mission in the world.

To keep its end of the bargain, Europe must learn to recognize the difference between Islam and radicalism; it must refrain from Islamophobia, and it must seek to ally itself with the Muslim world rather than to shut it out. If Europe wants peace, it should engage racism and xenophobia at its intellectual and historical foundations within Europe itself, and it should act according to universal democratic principles, avoiding any imposition of its culture on others.

If we all remember Europe’s dearth of response to the Egyptian coup last June; its inaction to quell the civil war which has been raging in Syria, and many other non-developments have made it abundantly clear that EU is not a dynamic organization that reacts with swift deliberate action to world events. On the contrary, Europe has proven itself to be so cumbersome; it can scarcely arrive at a consensus on a pizza.

Will Turkey ever walk down the aisle?

It is clear that Turkey’s accession to the EU and the great “alliance of civilizations” that would emerge from such a union would not be just a casual favour to Turkey. No man is an island. The people of our European family should make haste to complete the natural affiliation, which already exists between us and all the other European nations, and prepare the feast of this great wedding of our peoples. With these high sentiments in view, I hear wedding bells, but still, I am driven back to our initial question: Is our groom ever going to pop the question? In my humble opinion, we have a knotty problem: He says he loves us, but he has commitment issues.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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