Turkey: On the Road to the European Union

Helena Oliván

Political expert, Spain

This article, far from pretending to be exhaustive, seeks to offer a current panorama of the main recent publications about Turkey. Overall, the aim is to focus on two important aspects: firstly, the growing importance given by academics, experts and politicians to the questions surrounding Turkey’s membership. Secondly, that the political evolution of this country and the regional context surrounding it, just as reflected in the contrasted views that we find in the most recent bibliography, heralds a new era in which the pertinence of Turkey to mutually exclusive geopolitical areas is probably impossible.

Turkey is, without doubt, an immensely rich and complex giant, from a historical, social and economic point of view. Faced with the current perspective of elections that can be won by moderate Islamists, in the last few days some sectors of the country have defended tooth and nail the continuity of Turkish secularism before what they consider a growing danger of radicalisation. In the EU, on the other hand, a passionate debate on the future membership of this country has irrupted in the public opinion of some member states, of central importance for Europe because of its idiosyncrasy, its position, its role and its future.

The 7th European-Turkey Union Conference “Reciprocal Images and Knowledge: From Confrontation to Integration”, organised last January in Barcelona by the European Institute of the Mediterranean and the Istanbul Policy Center, is a regular meeting that allows a longer view of debates that, although necessary, are often anchored in local and short-term readings that contribute few elements for the future. Following the conclusions of this meeting,[1] it is possible to undertake an approach to the underlying questions that concern all. We must first refer to what we could denominate “classics” in the approach to the issues related to the history of Turkey. Historians such as Halil Inalcik, Cornell Fleischer or the recently deceased Stéphane Yérasimos bring us closer from a social point of view to Ottoman history, whose legacy partly explains the current complexity of the country. The first aspect to note in this context is the existence of historical episodes and arguments that underline identity elements that Turkey and Europe share and have shared throughout their history.

Although this is not definitive in bringing about the membership of this country, it radically sidelines the tendencies to automatically expel it from the orbit of integration. This approach opens, for example, the door to the valuing of the similarities between the Ottoman and Spanish Empires. Particularly important here is the work being carried out by historians such as Pablo Martín Asuero, Francisco Veiga, Eloy Martín Corrales or Miguel Ángel de Bunes, who from different perspectives shed light in their works and publications on the differences and the common points between similar historical periods for both empires, rejecting from the outset the traditional recourse to the absolute and selfexcluding historical categories that leave no room for comparison. [2] If we focus on contemporary and more recent history, authors such as Hamit Bozarslan with his Histoire de la Turquie contemporaine [3] make clear the main challenges that Atatürk left in the hands of the Turks, their contradictions and their needs in terms of real integration into Europe.

And to do justice to the keys for a rigorous approach to the country, the work by Thierry Zarcone [4] on the personality and work of the “father of the patria”, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is obligatory reading. One of the sections which undoubtedly deserves attention in this context is the treatment received by religion through the description of Islam in Turkey. [5] Also of note is the evolution of the minority groups in the country and their weight in recent history examined in the work Turquía, entre Occidente y el Islam: una historia contemporánea, by the historian Glòria Rubiol. [6]

The Journey as Fundamental Thread

In any case, the perspective adopted is nearly always that of a journey, that of establishing and delimiting the path followed by the country since the proclamation of the Republic to progress in its “Europeaness” and that of the ground that remains to be covered for integration. This is the approach that also enjoys most support from the Turkish analysts whose first objective is membership. They insist on the progressive incorporation of their country into the European institutions and call, as an almost natural final step, for access to the EU. It is clear that the growing interest in membership has provoked, above all since 2000, a flood of publications dedicated to the different social, political and economic aspects whose central thread is the incorporation of Turkey into the European Union.

Although the participation of the various actors in the process of integration can seem consolidated and open, much remains to be done before we can speak of shared values and identities that can lead to consensual policies, that is, towards a common project. And in this process, the generation of a debate through reflection is absolutely essential. It is therefore necessary to be grateful for this growing interest in a history so rich and intricate that it can and must promote a complex and sometimes bitter dialogue in postures that seem irreconcilable in terms of the pros and cons of membership.

This is the case of France, where the debate on membership has already resulted in ramifications that have to do with questions such as citizenship and the management of minorities, with the combination of Islam and democracy, or with secularism and religion. This does not prevent some observers from pointing out that these approaches are “tinged” by a wider debate more to do with the weight of France itself in Europe, its priorities and its future. But it is also true that in Turkey the desire to belong to the EU, theoretical support for liberalisation and democratisation, and satisfying the Copenhagen criteria are not the same thing. They are processes that require different times and diverse actors that can come together or not on the important dates, but that probably have their own cycle and windows of opportunity to be exploited. Leaving aside, therefore, the pertinence or not of a reflection like that taking place in France, it is necessary at this point to refer to the authors who have most lucidly undertaken analysis on these questions.

There are two works by Semih Vaner, prestigious Director of Research at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales and Editor of the journal Cahiers d’Études sur la Méditerranée Orientale et le Monde Turco-Iranien. In L’Europe avec ou sans la Turquie,[7] jointly written with Deniz Akagül, the author approaches the centre of the French controversy over Turkey’s membership, while as Editor of La Turquie, [8] he offers the contributions of different experts who, transversally, point to the major fundamental issues where Turkey will have to evolve, especially, although not exclusively, from the political point of view on its way towards the EU. For his part, Olivier Roy, in La Turquie aujourd’hui. Un pays européen ? [9] directs the contributions of different analysts in the same vein of the controversy for membership argued by Vaner, also trying to reflect in it the real fundamental concerns of the EU.

With the objective of demonstrating the importance attributed to this debate, it is also worth citing another of the many who dedicate their socio-political reflection to the advantages and disadvantages of Turkey’s membership, such as Éric Biegala in Faut-il intégrer la Turquie ? [10] The Anglo-Saxon world, although less controversially, also attaches importance to the Turkish issue through books such as Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey [11] by Nicole and Hugo Pope, journalists of international renown and with a great knowledge of the country, or The Turkish Labyrinth: Atatürk and the New Islam by James Pettifer. [12] No doubt, it is not comparable to the abundant existing bibliography in France. Among other notable and more recent approaches to this subject are The EU and Turkey: A Glittering Prize or a Millstone?, [13] edited by the former EU Ambassador to Turkey, Michael Lake, and Turkey and European Integration: Accession Prospects and Issues,[14] edited by Mehmet Ugur and Nergis Canefe.

Turkey as International Actor: Where to?

To conclude this journey through the different dimensions offered by the debate on Turkey, it is necessary to expand the focus to another fundamental element: its role as an international actor. It is here that reflections emerge that project positions towards the future that Turkey can go on supporting more or less intensively in function of its domestic evolution and of the crucial role it plays midway between Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Atlantic. Located at this crossroads, Turkey’s foreign policy rejects neither Mediterraneaness nor Europeaness, but it must watch many fronts and is also conscious of its role in Asia. As pointed out at the start, moreover, partly owing to this complexity, it will not allow its always strategic alliance options to be imposed or self-excluding. In this frame of mind different analysis dimensions can be approached. Here, one of the more recent compendiums and which analyses the relations between Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy is found in the monograph Turquía y la UE: trazando el camino a seguir. [15]

In the context of the membership and the regional perspective there is an interesting publication edited by Erwan Lannon and Joël Lebullenger, Les défis d’une adhésion de la Turquie à l’Union européenne, [16] which contextualises the debate on the membership on this board where Turkey plays a role imposed by its geography and chosen for its interests: trade exchanges, energy supply and security matters related with the Middle East make Turkey a strategic ally for the EU. One of the fundamental theses of this book is the need to value the fact that even if the membership does not prosper, Turkey will find itself partially placed in European territory until 2014, which will inevitably have implications for its relations with the EU from all points of view. Regarding the perspective of Turkey as a regional actor, reference can be made to the two scenarios which at the moment are incipient in the literature, but that undoubtedly will be relevant in the next few years. On the one hand, the involvement of the country in instruments such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership or the regional cooperation in the Black Sea, subjects currently dealt with by different authors such as Thanos Dokos, Soli Özel, Rafaella A. Del Sarto or Fatih Tayfur.

A new perspective for the analysis is also born out of the setting up of the Alliance of Civilizations by Spain and Turkey, which undoubtedly needs articulation in its development, but is already the object of certain literature: in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2006, published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean and the Fundació CIDOB there is a first approach to the issue through an article by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “Building Bridges Across the Mediterranean”. [17] It is to this perspective of the regional role that Turkey can come to develop in the region, always seen despite itself as a facilitator towards Arab countries, that the short but intense path that the academic community in Spanish territory is currently undertaking on Turkey seems to point.

Different to the rest of Europe for various reasons that we will not set out, [18] it is enough, however, to note that the increase in analysis on this question, such as the works of Carmen Rodríguez López and Marién Durán on the membership or those of Eduard Soler on the questions that relate Turkey and Spain in the current context, open a specific approach to this country and perhaps an era of searching for points in common and differentiating elements in a more Mediterranean context. What would be lacking in these approaches? Other questions such as a realistic and calm approach to migrations, the situation of women or the new economic actors and the so-called “Calvinist Islam”[19] will without doubt emerge in the next few years. In terms of foreign affairs, better understanding is still lacking on the relations of Turkey with the Caucasian countries, Iran and Iraq. [20]

The fostering of the dialogue on shared values or the analysis of the existence of a common project between Turkey and the EU are some of the issues which, although they currently cannot be the object of an extensive bibliography, are at the base of any serious reflection on the issue. This undoubtedly indicates the importance of continuing to pay attention to the level of perceptions and of image, in order, from the scientific ambit, to have the capacity to detect and evaluate the changes that will go on taking place in the literature on this great country.


[1] See the conclusions at http://www.medobs.net.

[2] See on this Francisco Veiga, El turco. Diez siglos a las puertas de Europa, Barcelona, Debate, 2006. Also of interest is a more specific approach to the relations between Spain and Turkey based on the study by Eloy Martín Corrales, “Relaciones de España con el Imperio Otomano en los siglos XVIII y XIX”, in Pablo Martín Asuero (ed.): España-Turquía. Del enfrentamiento al análisis mutuo, Istanbul, Isis, pp. 253-270.

[3] Paris, La Découverte, 2004.

[4] La Turquie. De l’Empire ottoman à la République d’Atatürk, Paris, Gallimard, 2005.

[5] See on this Thierry Zarcone, La Turquie moderne et l’Islam, Paris, Flammarion, 2004.

[6] Barcelona, Viena Ediciones, 2004.

[7] Paris, Éditions d’Organisation, 2005.

[8] Paris, Fayard, 2005.

[9] Paris, Encyclopedia Universalis, 2004.

[10] La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube, 2005.

[11] Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 1998.

[12] London, Viking, Penguin Group, 1997.

[13] London, I.B. Tauris, 2005.

[14] London, Routledge, 2004.

[15] Revista CIDOB d’Afers Internacionals, no. 75, October 2006.

[16] Brussels, Bruylant, 2006.

[17] Med.2006. 2005 in the Euro-Mediterranean Space, Barcelona, IEMed and Fundació CIDOB, 2006. Also available at http://www.iemed.org/anuari/2006/earticles/eTayyip.pdf.

[18] Eduard Soler, “Comprender el debate francés sobre Turquía desde una perspectiva española”, I Congreso del Foro de Investigadores del Mundo Árabe y Musulmán (FIMAM), Bellaterra, 17th-19th March 2005.

[19] http://www.esiweb.org/pdf/esi_document_id_69.pdf.

[20] See on this various texts by Luciano Zaccara, researcher at the Taller de Estudios Internacionales Mediterráneos, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.