As Obama opens doors to the Muslim world, will Europe close them?

President Obama’s 4th June speech in Cairo about relations with the Islamic world rightly got huge plaudits, including here. It doesn’t solve all problems but doors are open for new dialogue, policies and approaches. But as Washington wins credit and credibility through expressions of openness and respect and heads towards better links with the Muslim world, is Europe moving the opposite way?

The issue here is Turkey – and especially its prospects of joining the EU in the face of what is happening in European politics where there is widespread scepticism about some parts of the EU enterprise and a rise of anti-immigration parties.


Elections for the European Parliament are only very rough indications of what Europe thinks about key political issues.  Apart from anything else, voters don’t really understand what the EP is for, partly because it gets little if any national news media attention, and partly because it is a genuinely strange institution that regularly boxes up its paperwork so it can travel from Strasbourg to Brussels and back. This incomprehension and lack of interest has been reflected in declining voter turnouts, from a sort-of-OK 62 per cent in the halcyon age of 1979, dropping bit by bit to the 50 per cent mark by 1999, and down again to 43 per cent this year.  

Amid these low turnouts, which probably reflect a combination of general political alienation and disempowerment along with specific disregard for the European Parliament, the right made significant gains almost all across Europe, the big exception being Greece. In the UK the far right won two seats and the idiot right did well too. That is to say, the British National Party whose views are genuinely offensive won two seats in the Parliament and the UK Independence Party which favours national economic suicide through withdrawal from the EU increased from 9 seats to 13. Far right and anti-immigration parties of similar stripes also made gains in Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Netherlands and Slovakia.

It is not only low turn-out that suggests we should be careful not to over-read these results. The BNP may have won two seats but its vote actually fell compared to last time round in 2004; it won the seats because Labour voters stayed home in their disgruntled millions. Similarly, UKIP may have got a 45 per cent increase in seats but they went up by only one seat compared to what they won in 2004 (in the previous Parliament they lost two MEPs through resignation and one through expulsion) and their share of the vote went up by just 0.3 per cent.

A rightward trend & Turkey

All the same, there is an unmistakeable trend here and many mainstream centre-right and right-wing parties will respond to it by themselves tacking a bit to the right to minimise the challenge from their flanks. And in general in Europe the trend is towards the right of centre. Political logic means that the centre-ground will also move to the right, so centre-left parties will also lean over that way.

Among the consequences of this in the big picture, Turkey’s application to join the EU looks in terrible trouble. And I am one of the apparently dwindling number of people who thinks that’s a real problem for Europe and for Turkey.

By the way, I do not mean at all to equate the views of the centre-right, right, idiot-right and far-right on issues of race, immigration and the EU. But there is a general trend under way and one part of it is increasing scepticism among mainstream parties about some key aspects of the EU. One central aspect used to be free movement of labour. With the big enlargement in 2004 to encompass much of eastern Europe, several of the established members turned against free movement. Even those that did accept it and benefitted from it, such as Britain, were turning against it by the time of Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession in 2007.

Opposition to Turkey’s membership: reasons and unreason

In the case of Turkey, that unwillingness to welcome more immigrants is multiplied by inflamed historical memory, racism and Islamophobia. Since Turkish governments have often been their own worst enemies when it comes to winning over European opinion, these mixed and murky sources of resistance to Turkish membership have often sheltered behind a cloak of concern about human rights abuse in Turkey – of which there has been much, and which persists but has lessened as the Justice and Development Party government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set about orienting Turkey on the EU path.

Some critics of Turkish membership have come out in the open to say that since Turkish armies besieged Vienna 300 years ago, Turkey should not be allowed to join. You could dismiss that argument on the basis that the armies were Ottoman, not Turkish (the country of Turkey did not exist back then); or you could dismiss it by recalling that the whole point of the EU from its outset has been to unite in peace those who were previously divided in war (er – France and Germany, remember?); or you could try urging its exponents to reflect that 300 years is enough time to get over it already. Otherwise, I can tell you, the British and the Dutch also have some pretty big issues to deal with, never mind the French and the Spanish (French and almost everybody, actually).

When arguments that are so intellectually threadbare start to have any kind of traction in the political mainstream, you know something is going on.

Without being certain about this, I doubt that racism and Islamophobia are the driving force of reluctance to accept Turkey into the EU. More likely, the driving force is enlargement fatigue and deep-seated uncertainty about where the EU should go now. A generation of political leaders thought they had cracked that question at the start of the 1990s and set in motion a combination of a big expansion with a radical deepening of the EU – 10 new members and a constitution. But they failed to communicate properly with the citizens and voters of EU countries. The result has been uncertainty and unpopularity for the EU institutions, with referenda in key countries going against first the proposed constitution and then the Treaty of Lisbon.

Today it looks like the new political arrangements will finally come into being, but instead of racing ahead the EU is limping across the line several years behind time.

Seen in this light, Turkey with its size, its economy that is part-dynamic and part-backward, its diversity (urban and rural Turkey are very different), and its political problems is just too much for the EU to digest.

Reasons for

But although I think that’s the driving force of the reluctance to accept Turkey, it is pointless to ignore the prejudice that is also part of the equation.

The polite form this prejudice takes is to argue that Turkey is not actually part of Europe. The people who argue that don’t often bother to explain why Cyprus and Malta are, since by geography they are as European or not as Turkey is or isn’t. But the truth is that Turkey’s non-Europeanness is why it would be such a gain to bring Turkey into the EU.

Seen in the light of its larger regional identity, Turkey is an odd case, closely linked to both Europe and the Middle East, genuinely part of neither. If your starting point is the Europe of London or Paris, Turkey with its minarets looks Middle Eastern. But if your starting point is south-eastern Europe, there is much in Turkey that looks, tastes, feels and sounds strikingly familiar. Similarly, start from some Arab capitals and Turkey is extraordinarily foreign. The impact of modernisation and Europeanisation under modern Turkey’s founding President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was deep and real. Yet take Beirut as the starting point and the connections and links are again visible, tangible, audible.

For this complex real Turkey to be part of the European Union would

  •  enrich the EU both economically and culturally,
  • ease social tensions within it by assuring Muslims that there is indeed a place for Islam in modern Europe (shades of Obama’s 4 June message),
  • ensure that the EU’s political foundations remain strong and closely linked to the enterprise of peace,
  • ease European relations with the Middle East and
  • create the opportunities for new openings for peaceful development in which both the EU and Middle Eastern countries played a part, because of Turkey’s own bridge-building diplomacy in recent years.

Will Greece return to the stage?

In Europe today these arguments command little assent. The enthusiasm for Turkey’s accession to the EU back at the start of this decade has dissipated, not least in Greece where it was at one time strongest, much to the surprise of many western European politicians. The reason for this was that under the PASOK government of Costas Simitis with George Papandreou as Foreign Minister, Greece acted on two key insights:

  • Turkey is least threatening when warmly embraced, because negotiating to join – let alone actually acceding – to the EU necessitated that Turkey transformed away from a political model that has long given too much weight to the military;
  • Turkey is too big a problem for Greece to handle alone, but not at all a problem when the EU manages to have a joint policy, so the Simitis government reformulated the Greece-Turkey question as the Europe-Turkey question;

Thus an informal coalition grew up between those with an open expansive agenda for the EU and groups in Turkey supporting an enhancement of democracy and human rights. Taking the opportunity provided by an outpouring of fellow-feeling in 1999 when Istanbul was hit by an earthquake in August and Athens by a lesser earthquake in September, Simitis and Papandreou opened the way for a rapprochement between the two countries and for Turkey to make progress along the pathway to EU membership.

Unfortunately these insights have been lost to sight by the New Democracy government of Costas Karamanlis. Its passivity has silently encouraged an unimaginative slide into reluctance towards Turkish accession in several other EU governments. This in turn has discouraged the Erdogan government from continuing to press forward the far-reaching reforms that are still needed. The EU-Turkey relationship has started to be clouded by small niggles and irritations.

So back to the European elections: the exception to the rightward trend is in Greece where PASOK made clear gains. Now led by George Papandreou, there is a prospect it could return to office in the near future and once again reorientate the relationship between Europe and Turkey. Otherwise, the logic of Obama’s opening to the Middle East will be unthinkingly ignored and blindly opposed (literally blindly – without seeing that is what is happening) in Europe.

One thought on “As Obama opens doors to the Muslim world, will Europe close them?

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