Europe must learn to work with Turkey and keep democracy alive

The Turkish referendum on April 16 will determine whether the voters allow President Recep Tayyip Erdoan to consolidate and extend his power. This article was originally published on March 19, 2017. It has a renewed relevance in this crucial time for the future of Turkey’s democracy and its long-term quest to join Europe.

It was common to refer to a “European Turkey” at the beginning of the 21st century, just as it is standard for Russia to be described as European. This was due to its historical and influence on the continent.

These ideas were powerfully countered by the thesis of US political scientist Samuel Huntington from 1996. This thesis predicted a new order of cultural and socio-political conflict between European Catholic Christianity, and the Muslim Middle East following the end the Cold War. He would have been proved wrong by the integration of Turkey into the European Union.

But today, relations have strained so much that the Turkish government has threatened to cancel its refugee agreement with the EU, and a serious diplomatic crisis is brewing between Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands.

The crisis is a result of the nearly 500 years cultural and political exchange between Turkey and Europe.

An artificial separation

The Ottomans invaded the Balkan Peninsula in 1453 and reached the northern outskirts Vienna in 1683. By setting an example in the eastern Mediterranean and southeastern Europe at the gates to the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottomans helped shape the evolution of politics on the European continent.

Greek lithograph commemorating the Young Turk rebellion in 1908, and the introduction of a constitutional system. Sotirios Christidis/Wikimedia

After the fall of and the Congress of Berlin of1878, the Turkish narrative was largely cut off from Europe. In the following eras, such as the confrontation between the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (superpower), shared influences were not regarded as the most important subjects.

The end of the Cold War, and the birth the European Union helped to end this ahistorical division. The EU gave new generations a wonderful gift: multiple identities. One could be Dutch and Muslim, as well as European at the same time.

Turkey is also a valuable member of NATO. It was involved in NATO’s Mediterranean Working Groups as early as the 1970s. According to newly discovered archival documents from 1972, I’ve consulted, Turkey provided perspectives on defense matters in the North African Region, namely relations between Algeria and Tunisia. Among other serious issues, these included the use of chemicals weapons.

The state’s diplomatic relations with Europe have been strengthened by the exchange of trusted expertise. Only a few people knew about the experience and pattern of working together.

Popular history texts written at the dawn the new millennium described history of Balkans with a new premise based on the positive effects the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural, inclusive empire that gave individuals rights to groups based on religion. Our perspective on the long and complex history of Turkey has changed.

The Ottoman Empire and its multiculturalism have shaped the modern Turkey. Atilim Gunes Baydin

The inclusive perspective that was based on shared experiences has disappeared, but there is still no clear understanding of what will replace it. The answer is not a European Turkey.

Many in the Turkish Government blame the long-running EU membership negotiations that Turkey has been involved in since its application was submitted firstly in 1987. According to reports, the negotiations have ended. This has frustrated the Turkish leadership. Some people speak of Islamophobia towards Turkey.

The answer to these complex questions is not simple, but neither are the prejudices that exist in the European view of Turkey.

The enemy is a powerful, feared, and unreliable ally

Europe is stuck in a tangle of problems that are escalating in the Mediterranean. These include the civil war in Syria, and the collapse of state of Libya.

In these regions, Turkey and Russia play a powerful role, often at odds with European foreign policy, sometimes even adding to it.

Turkey pursues its own commercial interests in the Western Balkans instead of supporting EU integration. It seems that Turkey is not only allowing but enabling Russian military presence to take place in Libya.

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