European Affairs

These are the opening words of a lengthy strategy paper published by the European Commission in November 2005 spelling out the geopolitical philosophy underlying its hopes of continuing to admit new members into the 25- nation European Union. The document explains the official thinking behind the decision to open accession negotiations with Turkey in October, 2005, less than 18 months after the Union’s admission of ten new members, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, its biggest ever expansion. And it makes clear that Turkey should be admitted for the same basic reason as previous new members – to expand the zone of peace, prosperity and stability that the European Union has created over the past half century.

It is true that very quickly after the end of the Cold War the West realized that the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe would have to be fully integrated into the European Union, as well as into NATO, if the continent were to enjoy sustainable stability. Left to themselves, the former Soviet satellites would probably have ended up in chaos, since their internal dynamics would not have let them reform and renovate their societies and institutions.

It is also true that, in order to prepare for EU membership, the Central and Eastern European countries underwent an unprecedented political, economic and social transformation. Today, eight former communist countries are EU members, with Bulgaria and Romania due to follow in January 2007. All are on their way to becoming open societies and modern democracies.

As Turkey embarks on the long and challenging path to membership, however, two big differences are immediately apparent. Firstly, while nobody disputed the European credentials of the ten new members who joined in May 2004, opponents of Turkish entry have raised serious questions as to whether Turkey really is a European country – in terms of geography, culture, politics, economics and religion. Secondly, and relatedly, the prospect of Turkish accession has generated far more controversy and debate than preceded the entry of the Central and Eastern European countries – even if some of the arguments against Turkish entry have not always been entirely rational.

When EU leaders, at their Helsinki summit meeting in December 1999, declared Turkey to be “a candidate State destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria as applied to the other candidate States,” they made a courageous decision. The declaration marked a historic commitment to forge the strongest ties between Turkey and Europe since 1918, when the former Ottoman Empire was virtually excluded from the continent.

The Helsinki decision was not an act of charity. It was a genuine political act based on interests common to Europe and to Turkey. The European Union aimed to lay the foundations for sustainable economic, political and social stability in Turkey, which, as in the case of Central and Eastern Europe, would offer the best guarantee of the freedom, peace, security and stability of the continent as a whole.

A stable Turkey would in due course export its stability to the troubled regions of the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Western Balkans. Furthermore, the success of the undertaking would undoubtedly serve as an example for the Islamic countries around the Mediterranean basin and beyond, by demonstrating that modernity, democracy and prosperity are within the reach of a secular Islamic society.

EU leaders took this politically courageous decision in order to show that Europe, in its quest to become a world power, will be able to integrate different countries on the basis of shared common values, despite diverse cultural roots.

In following the Central and Eastern European countries into the European Union, Turkey would also have a chance to learn from the experience and techniques of its new partners to complete a lengthy modernization process, in which the country is still only half way toward becoming a genuinely stable and prosperous democracy. Turkey would learn to live without having to keep an eye out for enemies all around, and to resolve its own internal divisions.

With its EU candidate status confirmed, Turkey has already undergone remarkable changes since 1999. The incentive of EU membership, backed by Turkish society’s growing aspirations to transform itself, has led to a period of unprecedented political and economic stability.

Nevertheless, stiff opposition to Turkish membership has come from many parts of the European political spectrum, ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left. Some of the subtlest opponents of a Turkish entry argue that Turkey would be a Trojan horse, covertly importing the ideological shock troops not only of the United States but of Islam, and would put an end to Europe’s dreams of becoming a world power.

If Turkey, with its completely different culture, were integrated into the European Union, the argument runs, the identity frontier between Europe and non-Europe would disappear, as would the possibility of Europe becoming an influential and respectable actor in the international community. Instead, in order to build Europe as a world power, the European Union should put an end to enlargement and consolidate itself inside its identity frontiers.

It must be debatable whether such a position can be intellectually defended. It certainly raises a number of fundamental questions. Is cultural identity, for example, an adequate political basis on which to build Europe as a world power in the 21st century? If so, what are the peculiar cultural characteristics common to Europe if they are not those of a community of religion (ignoring religious conflicts within Christianity)?

Is it consistent to conceive of the European project as creating a new breed of Eurocitizens inspired by nationalism on a European scale, when the project really only has proper meaning and a respectable future if it overrides national, regional and religious identities and gives birth to the first post-national political entity? It is precisely the post-national, post-religious values of the European project that interest the rest of the world. These are the basis of the new political identity that is widely thought to be giving European ideals universal validity.

Likewise, is it possible for Europe to become a world power by remaining at home and preaching from a distance, without giving itself the means to act? Or is it possible to act simply as an “honest broker,” as suggested by Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a French conservative Member of the European Parliament, whereas the exercise of world power would normally mean getting involved, taking sides, and fighting for the propagation of one’s own political values and behavior?

What does it mean for Europe to be a world power if it is not capable of proposing an alternative model to the interventionist internationalism of the Bush administration and of having its own say on global issues? Can Europe be maintained like an aging and fragile doll’s house when it is besieged from all sides by the pressures of a rapidly changing world? The continuing problems in Ukraine, for example, provide glaring proof of the need for proactive engagement.

And why should Turkey not be able to participate in the construction of the new Europe? Because of its Atlanticism? This is not an immutable fact, and, in any case, committed Atlanticists, such as the Dutch, can also be dedicated Europeans at the same time. Does Turkey’s religion disqualify it, then? In the eyes of those who seek to confound politics and religion, certainly.

The truth is that it is not very easy to understand the ultimate objective of those who oppose Turkish EU membership because they are partisans of Europe as a world power. Are they really talking about Europe as a world power, or simply the conservation of an old identity vis-à-vis a new world that is more and more cosmopolitan and frightening?

In this shrinking world, Europe is called on to play a role in its vicinity, not by resuscitating its former colonial practices or imposing traditional spheres of influence, but rather by developing a new presence offering the best that the old continent has experienced since 1945: a model in which peace and stability are assured by democracy, solidarity and prosperity.

From this point of view, the U.S. Greater Middle East initiative is right on target. The initiative, rich in missionary rhetoric, is rather an empty shell in terms of substance and political meaning, and neglects real problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the bold American vision is challenging the European concept of stability and security by raising the stakes in the values championed by each side of the Atlantic.

Europeans could and should meet this challenge by integrating Turkey into the European Union. In a sense, the rival European concept of a Greater Middle East is already to be seen at work in Turkey, where major reforms in preparation for EU entry are demonstrating the effectiveness of the European idea of spreading stability. From inside the European Union, Turkey could reinforce the Euro-Mediterranean partnership for which the European Union is striving.

It is hard to overestimate the contribution that could be made by a European Turkey, politically and economically stable and equipped with a solid military tradition, in the region stretching from the Balkans to the Caucasus and the Middle East. The symbolic significance of such a Turkey for the region could be incalculable.

Although Robert Badinter, a former French Minister of Justice, told a meeting in Germany last year that a European Turkey is the last concern of the Arab and Muslim world, the fact is that Arab nations have closely followed all the major decisions concerning EU-Turkey relations. The inhabitants of the region are eager to know whether Europe will choose to join together with a “different” country and thus, by sending a message of international solidarity, assert itself on a global scale.

The EU decision of December 17, 2004 to start entry negotiations with Turkey in 2005, thus adding a new “southern dimension” to the Union, received exceptionally heavy media coverage in Arab countries. The decision promises to have a global impact going well beyond the issues of Turkish EU membership and the immediate future of Europe.

By opening negotiations with Turkey, the European Union is allowing the outline to emerge of a Europe as a political power with a universal message. If, instead, Europeans obstinately decide to pursue the dream of a Europe solidified in its old mental and physical identity lines, reliant on its past richness and splendor, they are likely to prolong their political impotence and leave themselves undefended against the waves of barbarity washing against their gates from all directions.

The idea of developing Europe into a political entity and a power with a say in world affairs is ambitious. Today, political Europe looks at first glance like a pleasant utopia with no reasonable consensus to support its construction. Instruments intended to build up Europe as a political entity, such as the common defense and security policy, seem distant and unrealistic. One can argue, however, that political Europe is already in the making through the European Union’s post-Cold War enlargement to the east and now toward Turkey. Europe should recognize its success in bringing peace, prosperity and stability to its neighborhood thanks to its “soft power,” which looks more sustainable than the “hard power” methods used by the United States, for instance in Iraq today.

Cengiz Aktar is Director of the EU Center of Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. A former UN official and an advocate of Turkey’s integration into the EU, he launched a civil initiative, European Movement 2002, to put pressure on legislators to speed up the political reforms necessary to start accession negotiations with the EU. He is also a columnist for the daily newspaper Vatan, as well as Turkish Daily News, and chairs the Greco-Turkish friendship NGO, Daphne. He can be reached at


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 4 in the Fall of 2005.