Turkey and the Identity of Europe

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.