Are Turks Asians

The magazine - No. 20

Dr Aktar, we would like to talk to you about Europe and Turkey.

Gladly. But first I have a question: Do you know that Istanbul, together with Essen and Pécs in Hungary, is the 2010 European Capital of Culture?

Yes, we heard. Why?

When it comes to Europe and Turkey, it is always about cultural differences. The preparation for 2010 and the celebration of the European Capital of Culture can show all of Europe that Istanbul and all of Turkey belong culturally to Europe - but they are also much more than just European!

Where does Turkey belong in the end: to Europe or to Asia?

It is a very complicated country when it comes to such a definition. Nobody asks whether Bulgaria or Latvia are European, not even Cyprus asks this question. I wonder why that is.

Then put another way: Do the Turks feel like Europeans or Asians?

You feel both and more than that! You feel Mediterranean, European, Islamic, belonging to the Middle East, to the East in general. If someone says that the Turks are Europeans: don't believe them! If someone comes and says that the Turks are Muslims, don't believe them either!

With so many feelings: How do the Turks then think about Turkish membership in the European Union?

There are essentially two directions. A few say: whether we meet the criteria or not, we will be accepted anyway because the EU needs us. Our market, our youth, our geostrategic location, us as a Muslim democracy.

And what do the others say?

They say: We would like to join the EU - but it won't take us. A few years ago, the second part of the sentence didn't have that much meaning. But since Turkey was granted candidate status at the end of 2004, it has been shown that the doubts of the Turkish public are very realistic.

The latest opinion polls in Turkey say that less than 50 percent of Turks want to join the EU and only 35 percent trust the EU.

In 1999/2000 85 percent wanted to go to the EU! The proportion of people who are neutral has also increased, to 26 percent. If I may generalize briefly, it looks like this today: Europeans do not want Turkey in the EU and the Turks no longer believe in the EU accession project.

Why have the Turks lost confidence in the EU process?

For the past six years, the EU has looked to the Turks like a person with a baton, systematically telling Turkey what to do. Prescribes reforms that we, the intellectuals, the academics, and civil society are calling for. The last government as well as the current one met the requirements - good! And people were happy about it. The problem is: the reforms were indeed revolutionary for Turkey. But at the same time the Turkish mentality has to change - and that didn't happen. In the end, we run the risk that all the reforms will only exist on paper.

What reforms do you mean?

Especially those who have to do with freedom of expression and speech. They are of course not directed against Turkish unity or identity, they benefit people! But these reforms were abused by the Turkish nationalists saying: These are dangerous reforms that play into the hands of the separatists, especially the Kurds, and encourage them to demand more and more in order to split off from Turkey in the end . The worst thing in a reform process is when democratic reforms are only implemented half-heartedly. Then they only bring half of what is expected of them, but they give the opponents arguments.

Who are these opponents?

It goes from the extreme right to the extreme left. People who think very locally, who still believe that Turkey doesn't need anyone, that it should develop on its own. This is reminiscent of Albania and North Korea in the 1970s and is utter nonsense.

And these opponents can sabotage Turkey's accession to the EU, so to speak?

No. They are not the problem at all.

Who then?

It is not what nationalist elements of society think that is problematic, but what the government, civil society and the elite of Turkey are doing to better inform people about the benefits of the reforms and the Turkish EU process. There is a lack of will, effort and means. For almost two years the government has simply stopped all efforts in the direction of the EU. Me and six or seven other people who know how important the process is, we can't catch it. The Turkish media are not interested in the EU. There is only one program on television about the EU - and it is not clear whether it will continue. There is hardly any news about the EU in the newspapers. So unless there is strong political will, it won't work.

What should happen

People need to be told the purpose and benefits of all these reforms. An example: Turkey has a customs union with the EU. This means that Turkey and the EU import and export goods between themselves, duty-free. This customs union has brought immense benefits to Turkish industry. Not least because, in order to be allowed to export to Europe, they had to meet EU standards for cars, refrigerators, wherever. Of course, these requirements also benefit Turkish consumers enormously. Nobody bothered to make that clear to the Turks. The opposite has happened: nationalists have taken the floor and declared that these and other EU-related reforms are directed against Turkey and that they endanger the unity, the way of life and the foundations of Turkey. At the same time, the man on the street felt little of the tangible advantages of the EU, very different from the people in former candidate countries. The EU institutions were very present there, with large projects, significant loans and subsidies. In Turkey: almost nothing. I said the EU looks like a stick here - but there is no carrot dangling from its end!

So a mistake by the EU?

I've been following EU enlargement for more than 15 years and the process of Turkish EU membership is probably the worst I've seen. I have never seen a process in which the EU institutions, with the exception of the EU Commission, have remained so cool. I can tell you exactly which EU countries are actively involved in Turkish accession preparations: the Netherlands and Sweden. And Germany through the Heinrich Böll, Konrad Adenauer or Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Not all EU states always have to actively promote Turkish membership - but only three? That's just not enough.

What is your conclusion from this?

The Turkish process does not seem to be of any real concern to anyone. Nobody is hot for it. Perhaps one hopes that the Turkish accession process will simply break off at some point. Freezes. Maybe they want to kill him gently.

Who are you"?

I call it the “coalition of the unwilling”: unwilling politicians in Turkey and in the EU countries. Together they pull the whole process down. It is also very unfortunate for Turkey that the preparations for membership are taking place at a time when Europe is looking for its soul, in an increasingly complex political world situation, after the constitution has failed and the new member states have joined. Nobody feels the joy of 1989 when talks began with the first six candidates such as Estonia and the Czech Republic. That makes things more difficult not only for Turkey, but also for Bulgaria and Romania, for example, who are due to join the EU on January 1, 2007 - there is no longer any enthusiasm.

They say the government has stopped reforms. Why?

Some argue that the government never really believed in the EU and EU-inspired reforms and only played with them to limit the army's power. I don't know if that's true. Others believe that the government does not want to impose more EU-motivated reforms on the population and instead wants to use the profits from the negotiations that are beginning for the next elections. And after the elections won in November 2007, they will see from there. That is also more my opinion.

Then time would be lost, but the government would still achieve the goal of EU accession.

What worries me most is that the Turkish government regards EU relations and the preparation of the talks as a foreign policy issue, and one more of many foreign policy issues and opportunities. Of all the mistakes, this is probably the biggest mistake. Because the EU is not a foreign policy issue: if you change your driving license according to the rules agreed in Brussels, it has nothing to do with foreign policy. And the EU is not one option among many other options. We have no alternative!

There is talk of a China-Russia-Turkey axis or a turn to the Arab world.

Undemocratic Russia, totalitarian Iran, the chaotic Middle East? Do we want this for our children? Of course not.

At the beginning of our conversation, the focus was on the cultural capital of Istanbul and the associated opportunity to prove that cultural differences are not an insurmountable hurdle at all. Do you really believe that?

Nobody claims that Turkey is 100 percent European or has European culture. But as long as the debate goes on under these circumstances, we are lost. Because then we will continue to discuss whether we are culturally or religiously or somehow differently European or not. The EU is a project, a process that is constantly evolving. As Karl Marx said: Like a bicycle - if it stops, it falls over. Jacques Delors, the former Commission President, repeated that. A project that will grow, that will really become a world power, alongside China, India and the USA. This project will guide Turkey, just like Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova. We should look at the dynamics of this project and concentrate on the Turkish potential to change and at the same time bring in our own values.

What values ​​could that be?

I don't mean Islamic values ​​by that! But every German knows what the Turks are like: They like people, talk to children, are open, relaxed, individualism is not yet the central element in society - all values ​​that have been a little lost in Europe.

In Germany, child love plays a smaller role than the latent fear of Muslims.

Turkish Islam is also changing. All the states that recently joined are changing. People all over the world will be able to say: Look, the EU, what a great project - it can even take in a Muslim country like Turkey and integrate it under the umbrella of common political values ​​such as law, democracy. That would be an excellent message to the world and, above all, to this region of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Imagine a Turkey that, thanks to the dynamism of the EU project, is economically and politically stable - that would be very attractive in the region. And it is already like this: The Arab neighbors are investing in Turkey because they appreciate the fact that Turkey is becoming more and more stable and reliable. They are not investing here because they are Muslims and Turkey is a Muslim country. They come because Turkey is becoming European.

Another concern: too many Turkish immigrants looking for work.

The Turks will not strap their houses on their backs and travel to Europe and erect them there again. Why should they do this? A Turk who, thanks to the development initiated by the EU, finds work in Antalya, for example - why should he leave Turkey to sweep the streets in Hamburg, where it rains all the time? Turkey can feed 100 million people without any problems. And please think of the Czech Republic!

How come?

Germany has introduced a quota for Czechs. This quota is only met to 18 percent. The Czechs are not coming! Why should they? They are satisfied where they live now. There is a golden rule in migration research which is: people never emigrate for fun. They leave the place where they were born only when they are threatened, when they have to suffer from difficult economic or political conditions. Otherwise not. That is why there can only be one goal: to make the candidate countries fit to enable their citizens to have a good life where they live now.

What can the EU do immediately to do just that?

Promote organic farming in Turkey. Turkish soil is comparatively clean, there is a very large biodiversity in this country. Around thirty percent of Turkey's agricultural products are already organic today, without being labeled as such, because the farmers cannot afford the certificates. There is great potential there that, if properly developed, can be one of the solutions to many problems. Organic products require more human labor than conventional agriculture. They have great added value. They are environmentally friendly. Instead of promoting rural exodus, they will keep the peasants in the country, first to Turkish cities, then to other European countries. The EU should urgently promote this potential in order to make it clear to the Turkish public what opportunities are lying idle there. Especially in the east and southeast of the country.

What will happen next in Turkey?

As every year, there will also be an interim report this autumn. It'll be tough, but realistic. In Turkey, the report will come as a shock. The shock will come from the financial market, as usual. If the financial market interprets the interim report in such a way that Turkey is drifting away from Europe, the country's creditworthiness will be downgraded and this will have an immediate impact on the Turkish economy. Hopefully this kind of shock will be enough to wake the politicians up. I fear this country only acts by responding to shocks.

Will Turkey ever become a member of the EU?

She should. It's in Turkey's interest. It is in Europe's interest.

Dr. Cengiz Aktar, 51, heads the Center for European Studies at Istanbul Bahcesehir University. In 1999 he co-founded an initiative that was working on the nomination of Istanbul as European Capital of Culture. In 2002 he founded the “European Movement 2002”, which exerts pressure on the Turkish government to advance the reforms necessary for the accession negotiations. Aktar, a columnist for the daily newspaper Vatan and the Turkish Daily News, lives with his wife and a daughter in Istanbul, his second daughter studies in Geneva.