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Is Turkey European?

By Alan Martin

What does it mean to be a ‘European country’? Does ‘European-ness’ depend on accession to the EU, does it depend on geographical location, does it depend on shared fundamental values, or is it a mix of all three? Turkey is unique in that it lies at the intersection of Europe and Asia, both culturally and geographically. However there has been significant attempts to westernise the country via Atatürk’s initial reforms and subsequential reforms due to its pending application for accession into the European Union. But due to recent political upset and human rights violations in the country, I want to examine just how ‘European’ is Turkey?

It must then be decided what actually identifies a ‘European country’. Ratification of a particular international treaty, such as the EU treaties, is far too restrictive as it would exclude countries tucked away in the centre of the landmass, such as Switzerland. Membership of the Council of Europe alone is a questionable claim for a European identity, due to the membership of somewhat aggressive states like Russia. Turkey itself joined the Council of Europe in 1949. Although membership of international European institutions and ratification of multilateral treaties are good indicators of states’ commitments and ties to a European identity, nonetheless it should not be the only deciding factor.

Can we derive a European identity simply from geography? The geographical division between Europe and Asia ironically leaves some room for interpretation, in that, the geographical boundary has moved over time, and will presumably change further. Traditional geographic boundaries were conceived somewhat arbitrarily by European scholars in an effort to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world. However, physically speaking, Europe and Asia are not separate geographic continents as they both lie on the same tectonic plate. Unlike other traditional continents Europe and Asia are not clearly separated. The modern construction of the Europe-Asia boundary (from south to north) follows the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles-Sea of Marmora-Bosporus, the Black Sea, along the watershed of the Greater Caucasus, the northwestern portion of the Caspian Sea and along the Ural River and Ural Mountains. Controversy, however, still exists over the formal boundary, which remains unclear since it has no great significance.

The modern construction of the Eurasian boundary places Georgia and Azerbaijan mostly in Asia, however, each has small sections that lie in Europe. Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, is split by the Bosporus Strait and was considered a transcontinental city, lying on both sides of the line. By that definition then, Turkey was a transcontinental country, as are Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan. These definitions are now considered somewhat outdated by geographers as they lack actual scientific proof of a physical continental divide, and thusly the division of Eurasia into the two continents of Europe and Asia is mostly arbitrary. If there are no strict geographic limits to Europe then the limit is simply what scholars and academics consider it to be, at different points in time. Therefore, like state boundaries, our interpretation as to the boundaries of Europe mold and change with time and context.

If it is not simply accession to an international treaty or the geographical location of a state, then where does this sense of European identity stem from? Our most recent conception of Europe is derived from a post-World War II era. With the establishment of the Council of Europe and the European Coal and Steel Community (predecessor of the EU), a European identity was born between a number of states on a few basic principles, those being: respect for basic human rights, democracy, the rule of law and pluralism. These basic principles are still very much in force today with the formation of a European Court of Human Rights and illustrated by the Pillars of the EU. The question now is if Turkey was, or is still committed to these basic principles.

Turkey historically has multiple, strong ties to said principles. After World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk emerged victorious from the Turkish War of Independence establishing the Turkish Kingdom, as it formally exists today. Atatürk implemented a series of reforms, including a policy of industrialisation, the modernisation of the constitution and the adaptation of European laws and jurisprudence, in an attempt to westernise the country. Most notably however was the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, making the country secular. Turkey’s bid to join the EU originally in 1984 brought with it a second round of policy reform inching it ever forward to a baseline respect for human rights, democracy, rule of law and pluralism.

However, the recent decrees and policies of President Erdogan undermine the progressive policy reforms Turkey has implemented. He has managed to dismantle the country into functionally an autocracy, shifting the balance of powers in Turkey disproportionately into the hands of the President. Erdogan’s regime operates with little or no regard for basic human rights. After the declaration of a state of emergency in July 2016, 118 journalists were remanded in pre-trial detention and 184 media outlets were arbitrarily and permanently closed down under executive decrees, leaving opposition media severely restricted. People expressing dissent, especially in relation to the Kurdish issue, were subjected to threats of violence and criminal prosecution. These exercises of power fly in the face of the aforementioned basic principles.

A European identity is simply about people. It is about connecting the millions who live within a continent that houses shared values of democracy in politics, humanitarian justice in the law, an open exchange of goods and technology, and cultural appreciation. It retains a common framework of justice and human rights, where democratic standards are protected and cultural links are fostered, which I believe Turkey had the capacity to achieve. Its current path however leads it further away from a European identity since the end of World War II.


Originally published 1.12.17 in Vol. 1 No. 1.


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