The Accession of Turkey to the European Union

Trishaa Bansal

European Christian democrats have argued that the kind of a civilisation in the process of being built in Europe is one where a country like Turkey has no place.[i] This upfront confession, though seemingly narrow, raises crucial questions regarding identity and the extent of this identity, along with the basis upon which it is grounded. As Nicole Fontaine, President of the European Parliament very lucidly described the inability of Turkey to be a part of the European Union (EU) not because of the lack of fulfillment of officially published touchstones of political and economic stability but because of the unresolved concerns regarding ‘cultural integration’ that shall inevitably arise in the event of Turkey being accepted as one of the members of the Union at the Helsinki summit; the belief that Turkey, though being a part of Europe (geographically) can never be accepted as being ‘in’ Europe is widespread.

The EU has more often than not indicated Turkey to be the ‘other’ portraying it to be too incongruous with all other countries in the union. This is centred upon the idea that the EU is formulated against a culture that is distinct and concrete in itself. This model seeks to ascribe culture not in terms of an interplay among language, religion, art inter alia other factors that account for the meaning of culture in universal terms but is profoundly rooted in the history and heritage of Europe[ii] which is when the whole idea of the distinctiveness of the state results in being based exclusively on cultural affiliation. This, in turn, becomes responsible for the portrayal of Turkey as unsuitable for the body of principles formed thereafter.

Christianity, has been seen, not only as a religion but as a lifestyle in itself or a civilizational idea.[iii] This all-encompassing religious and cultural phenomena offers the necessary environment for developing a vibrant and self-motivated worldview that cannot be imagined in any Eastern religion.[iv] The sense of being superior to others has given rise to an attitude of dominance and control that has been prevalent in the state. The notion that history moves from East to west and Europe is the end of history[v] is at the root of the European identity. Europe has always been defined in terms of what it is not. Therefore, after the Enlightenment, the conception of being ‘civilised’ in opposition to the barbaric non-European is what was used to establish the self-image for Europe. This model has been carried forward ever since. It is against this backdrop that Turkey has been referred to as the ‘Other’.

Another factor that accounts for the formation of self-image is based in the division of identities as Christian and Islamic that furthers this feeling of otherness. A body like the EU requires some kind of homogeneity that can promise to bind the member countries together. Considering that religion is the most explicit factor uncommon to Europe and Turkey common to all other EU members, it becomes invariably definitive when a cultural identity has to be settled upon. A comprehensive identity and the deliberations leading to it shall be engrained in Christendom without fail.

An important aspect of Turkey’s “Europeanization Project”[vi] has been the question regarding what it is to be secular and European. The debate regarding secularism brings about the contention of an ever evolving European identity and its relationship with the religion question. Thus the debate focuses not only on the controversial merger of Muslim majority Turkey with a historically Christian dominant Europe but also the more fundamental unresolved conundrum of the European identity and how religion and politics relate to each other in the realm of internal issues regarding the same.

Rumelili argues that the “interaction with its Turkish ‘other’ makes the European identity more insecure.”[vii] It is in this context that the deliberation over Turkey is culturally, not only economically or politically contentious. It seeks to settle the unfinished and unsettled issues in the social fabric of the EU and its core members and the idea of secularism in both, the EU and Turkey and also how religion (including not just Islam) should interact and associate itself with the public life and politics in Europe. This is what is referred to as the cultural sticking point and it is in this context that the candidacy of Turkey in a way propagates the destabilization of the European secular social imaginary.[viii]

These debates have portrayed Europe as the torn country that is struggling to understand its own cultural identity, as a result, being unable to settle at an undisputed way of deciding how Europe should be defined and perceived by the outer world and along the same course, the EU whether by a common heritage, as a body that was formulated to showcase the homogeneity of Europe in the form of the bridge of a common religion or by its modern values that showcase it as a progressive system following the secular ideals of the provision of universal human rights, a political democracy, the relative newness of liberalism as opposed to realism and a tolerant and all inclusive multiculturalism as the norm.

Turkey’s secularism has been called a “stability” factor and a “good example”[ix] in its vicinity by the EU, which is still deliberating these terms itself but this importance to democracy and secularism as necessary conditions in terms of admission of Turkey isn’t a new development. The idea of “democratic secularism” that forms the first two words of Turkey’s Constitution and as the EU has reiterated, that it is fully in line with the principles laid down by these terms has been elevated to a non-written condition for Turkey’s candidacy in the EU. An interesting aspect of this debate is that the acquis is silent on the very idea of secularism and in an institution that is itself confused about its identity and there are little or no guidelines for the regulation of religious affairs in a structured way, it becomes difficult to subscribe to abstract ideas of secularism.

Secularism serves importance in the context of EU- Turkey relations on the count of three aspects – the secular model in turkey to set an example for countries in its vicinity[x], the model to be an asset for the EU in terms of stability, the model to be a pre requisite for Turkey to be a member. The third conception of the notion of secularism has been renamed democratic secularism in the context of Turkey. Secularism is not the only concern addressed through the propagation of Turkey as a model to other countries, the idea that Islam and democracy can be compatible and that both can exist in harmony in the same framework has gained relevance owing to the showcasing of “moderate Islam”[xi] that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

The fact that the inclusion of Turkey would help in undermining the boundaries between the West and the Muslim world while following a secular framework is a necessary condition for establishing external relations and could act as a factor for stability. It is in this background that the condition of democratic secularism as an essential non written condition has emerged.

Secularism or ‘saeculum’ in Latin signifies the temporal world or in more common terms, worldliness in opposition to the spiritual world. Laicism, often used as a synonym for ‘secularism’ depicts the separation of the laity from the clergy, the congregation from the ministry or in the present context, the distinction between the church and the state as the accepted notion of what is considered secular in Europe. Thus both these terms have been used to bring about a kind of duality between the two most powerful institutions – the Church and the State that were associated with the highest form of authority over spiritual matters and temporal matters respectively.[xii]

The key difference between secularism in Muslim societies and Europe comes into being against this background of the possibility of a distinction between spiritual and political matters. In Islam, there is no such individualistic understanding of religious and political institutions. They are believed to be the same, religion and state are merged into each other to the extent that an understanding that secularism is an alien concept to Muslim societies has Even if Islam were to be a factor taken into contemplation while considering Turkey’s accession, the extent of it being an influence extends there only to cultural considerations and not issues relating to governance. The “fairness factor” that thus comes into being relies upon the application of a similar methodology and criteria to Turkey as to the other states in line for prospective accessions. The EU must strive to be universal and unprejudiced in terms of offering full candidature to any state that as such desires the same and fulfills the necessary criteria.

(The views expressed in this blog are of the author and do not represent the views of the society or its members)

[i] Ingrid Kylstad, ‘Turkey and the EU: A ‘new’ European identity in the making?’ [2010] 1 LSE

[ii] Ingrid, 2010

[iii] Ingrid, 2010

[iv] Ingrid, 2010

[v] Ingrid, 2010

[vi] Ingrid, 2010

[vii] Bahar Rumelili, ‘Constructing Identity and Relating to Difference: Understanding the EU’s Mode of differentiation’ [2004] 45 Review of International Studies.

[viii] Nilüfer Göle, ‘Islam in Public’ [2002] 183 Public Culture

[ix] Gole, 2002

[x] Olli Rehn, ‘Open debate on enlargement’ (European Parliament, Foreign Affairs Committee, Brussels, 2007) 3

[xi] Rehn, 2007

[xii] Niyazi Berkes, The Development of Secularism in Turkey  (Routledge, 1998) 141


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