Turkey in Europe: Record, Challenges and the Future

By Lovell, David | Insight Turkey, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Turkey in Europe: Record, Challenges and the Future


Lovell, David, Insight Turkey


The relationship between Turkey (and its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire) and Europe has been long, often tense or openly hostile, and is in some senses fundamental to the identities and development of each. Since Ataturk created the Turkish Republic and set it on a new path to modernity and Europe, and especially since Turkey made clear its ambition to join the European Union (EU) to consolidate this direction, the historical relationship--and especially the cruder contrasts between Christian Europe and Muslim Turkey--has added a considerable burden of suspicion to achieving EU membership. The EU has decided that while Turkey sufficiently fulfils its basic membership criteria to begin accession negotiations it is not yet sufficiently aligned with the EU's acquis communautaire, but there is a more general unease about the cultural differences that remains. This essay examines these propositions by providing an account of the history of the relationship and of Europe's approach to Turkish accession to the EU. While accepting that much remains to be done at the institutional level to bring Turkey into alignment with EU norms, it argues that Turkish accession is a historic opportunity for Europe that it should not squander.

From the Ottomans to the Republic

Historically, Islam was intent on expanding its sphere of influence, and only a century after Muhammad's death in AD 632 it had entered Europe through the Iberian Peninsula, where it remained for more than 700 years, and made its way even into what is now France. In the East, the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople in 1453, after more than a century of Turkish conquest in the Balkans, was a signal to European states that they faced a major--almost existential--threat. As Davies explained, "Islam's conquests turned Europe into Christianity's main base." (2) Turks subsequently made even bolder incursions into Europe, conquering Hungary in the 16th century (not to mention their expansion in the Near East). But in 1683 the Ottoman's (second) siege of Vienna was broken and its armies began a retreat that lasted for the next two centuries. Permeating the confrontation between Turkey and Europe had been a contest between Islam and Christendom, (3) but coinciding with the reduction in its intensity Christendom itself began to fracture. Starting with the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Europe entered a period of social, economic, technological and intellectual ferment which led to bitter divisions within Christianity and the decline of Papal temporal power, a vast expansion of European power and imperial outreach, the development of nationalism, and the rise of religious and social turmoil and inter-state wars (what a Europeanist of la longue duree might term "Europe's civil war"). Europeans continued to see Turkey as 'the Other' (moving perhaps from the charge of 'Infidel' to that of 'Uncivilized', as Delanty argues), with the late 18th century English parliamentarian and conservative thinker Edmund Burke declaring that the Turks were "worse than savages." (4)

The Ottomans at their height controlled a vast empire, but gradually became aware that their own relative power was declining. As a result, in the 19th century they turned to Europeans for the education of their elites, finances for their ailing treasury, and even ideas (including, in the case of the Young Turks, ideas about nationalism). World War I, in which the Ottomans allied with Germany, led to the collapse of their now-brittle empire. Turkish revolutionaries, eventually under the leadership of Ataturk, established the Turkish Republic in 1923 and embarked on a program of rapid modernization. The introduction of a Latin alphabet, surnames, the weekend, civic nationalism, secular government, and ultimately multi-party democracy was the work of Ataturk and his successors. (5)

Europe, in this brief account, defined itself historically to some extent in opposition to the Ottoman Empire because of the latter's essentially Islamic character and expansionist intent. …

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