Negotiating Europe: EU-Turkey Relations from an Identity Perspective

By Rumelili, Bahar | Insight Turkey, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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Negotiating Europe: EU-Turkey Relations from an Identity Perspective


Rumelili, Bahar, Insight Turkey


ABSTRACT

This article analyzes the identity dimension of EU-Turkey relations from the constructivist perspective in international relations theory. It contends that in EU-Turkey relations, European and Turkish identities are undergoing a continuous process of reconstruction and negotiation. In this process, Turkey's representational practices assume importance in reshaping European identity. In response to the arguments of those who oppose Turkey's EU membership on the identity ground this article claims that a constructivist perspective foresees the possibility that European and Turkish identities can be reconstructed in such a way as to make the justification of Turkish membership possible and desirable from an identity viewpoint.

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While almost every study on EU-Turkey relations points to identity as an important factor, most analyses are predicated on rather simplistic and essentialist understandings of identity. According to many, the persisting divide between Christianity and Islam, and the historical antagonism between Europe and the Ottoman Empire continue to color EU-Turkey relations and serve to strengthen objections to Turkish membership on other grounds. Viewed from an essentialist perspective, the prospects that Turkey's EU membership could be justified on identity grounds are rather bleak. Turkey is Europe's 'Other'. In this sense, the essentialist perspective presents the EU with a choice between European identity, which dictates Turkey's exclusion, and European interests, which may, overall, favor Turkey's inclusion.

This article presents an alternative analysis of the identity dimension in EU-Turkey relations, drawing upon the competing constructivist perspective in international relations theory. (1) The constructivist perspective foresees the possibility that European and Turkish identities can be reconstructed in such a way as to make the justification of Turkish membership possible and desirable from an identity viewpoint. Indeed, such a justification is possible and ultimately necessary for Turkey's membership. This article advances three interdependent arguments from the constructivist perspective with regard to the identity dimension in EU-Turkey relations. First, because identities are socially constructed, negotiated, and contested, EU-Turkey relations provide a site where the identities of 'Europe', the 'Turk', 'Asia', and 'Islam' are continuously negotiated. This negotiation is ultimately an open-ended process, in which Turkey, just as much as the European Union and the European societies are actively involved. Hence the title of this article: Negotiating Europe. Second, identities cannot be divorced from interests. Rather, identities are constitutive of interests, meaning that the question of whether or not Turkish membership is in the EU's or in Turkey's interest is defied by how European and Turkish identities are constituted in relation to one another. Third, identities, while themselves subject positions defined by broader discourses, are reproduced through actors' representations of self and other. Identities are negotiated and contested between self and other through these representational practices. The process of European enlargement has been made possible by representational practices of the applicant and member states that have together redefined European identity.

The article then proceeds to an analysis of the representational practices that have accompanied Turkey's membership bid, and the ways in which these representational practices have redefined European and Turkish identities so far. Due to space limitations, and in line with the theme of the volume, the article focuses on Turkey's representational practices. (2) In particular, two modes of representing Turkey's identity in front of European audiences are discussed: an earlier mode that reproduced the construction of Europe and Islam and Europe and Asia as mutually exclusive and inherently incompatible identities, and a later mode that sought to challenge these preconceptions about mutual exclusivity and inherent incompatibility.

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