Turkey in Europe: an uncomfortable presence?

Is Turkey a part of Europe? It is a question that confuses and divides both those within and outside the large Islamic country that straddles two continents. Certainly, the history of the Turkish people is very much intertwined with European affairs, ever since the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist strides in the fifteenth century. Yet for many Europeans, the presence of Turkey in “their” lands is something to be feared, or at least be sceptical about. Nowhere is this clearer than in France.

The French, and to a lesser extent the Germans, are the biggest obstacle to Turkey’s European Union accession. The Turks’ membership proposal has been on the table for several years yet has been consistently ignored by the French, whose politicians and citizens see Turkey as too big, too poor and too Muslim to join. Now, another flashpoint in relations between the two countries has emerged that threatens to destabilise Turkey’s bid for EU membership even further. The French parliament has passed a law making it illegal to deny the “genocide” of the Armenian people perpetrated by the Turks in 1915-16. Widely seen as a policy meant to win President Sarkozy the support of the half-million ethnic Armenians living in France for next year’s election, the Turks have responded with abject fury. Recalling their ambassador from Paris, freezing military cooperation with the French and threatening potential economic sanctions is the Turkish government’s response to what they call an assault on their country’s national identity. They deny that the mass killings and deportation of Armenians was genocide, suggesting rather that it was a sad consequence of the First World War.

The Turks have also been eager to point out the reliance of Europe in general, and France in particular, on their booming economy as part of the Eurozone recovery. Some MPs of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are even asking whether Turkey needs further integration with Europe. What seems clear, not only in France and Turkey but also in the rest of Europe, is that there is a general unease about Turkish Europeanisation. This deeply-embedded mistrust stems from Turkey’s historical role on the continent, which has often run contrary to the interests of the predominantly-Christian states to the west. Whilst this historical legacy lingers, Turkey’s place in Europe will never be fully-accepted.


The Ottomans

The Turks burst onto the European scene with the capture of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, ending the Byzantine Empire and with it the last remnants of the great Roman Empire, a bastion of Christendom for over a millennium. This was only the beginning of the Ottoman expansion. During the course of the sixteenth century, marshalled by their brilliant sultan Suleiman, the Ottomans conquered large swathes of Christian Europe, including Belgrade, Rhodes and much of Hungary. Furthermore, they annexed significant lands in the Middle East, including Jerusalem in 1517, a city long coveted by the Christians.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the beginning of Turkish engagement in Europe

Not only did this aggressive policy of territorial acquisition deal a religious and political blow to Western Europe, but it also had severe economic repercussions. The Ottomans’ control of the traditional caravan trading routes through to Central and Eastern Asia cut off the Europeans from some of their most profitable markets. Although this would ultimately encourage the Age of Exploration and Discovery that led Spain and Portugal to the New World and India by sea, it proved a downfall for many European states. The Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, long commanders of the Mediterranean and Oriental trade routes, began their fall into decline. Meanwhile the central Germanic states became isolated, exacerbating the religious tension already brewing under the Protestant Reformation.

The Ottoman Turks offered a severe challenge to Christian ascendency in Europe, advancing as far as Vienna and the northern tip of Africa. Only the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the other Catholic states of Europe prevented the Islamic march progressing further. Consequently, the legacy of the Turks’ first appearance in Europe is one of religious warfare, economic undermining and political conquest. Whilst the Ottomans indirectly played a role in the creation of the great European colonial empires through their domination of traditional trade routes, they were overwhelmingly responsible for the destruction of Christian kingdoms and cultural artefacts that history makes hard to forget.

It would take the corruption of the Ottoman Sultans and a resurgence of Western and Central European power, brought about by colonial exploitation and industrialisation, to halt the Turkish challenge for European supremacy. Even so, the Ottomans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are still revered amongst some Turks for their show of Islamic power and cultural and political expansion. Such sentiments of invoking Ottoman power are unlikely to improve the Turkish image in the minds of sceptical Europeans, particularly those well-versed in modern history.


World War I

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes. With its territories having diminished to just a few areas of the Middle East and its leadership increasingly unstable, much of present-day Turkey was severely impoverished.

However, despite their restrictions, the Turks joined the War on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914 after signing the Ottoman-German Alliance. The key motivator for the Ottoman’s involvement in the War was territorial. Having been openly competing with Russia for supremacy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for several decades, the Turks were determined to prevent the Tsarist forces assuming control over the strategically-important Bosporus and Dardanelles. These two straits were crucial in connecting Europe and Asia, both in terms of trade and with regards to naval deployment. The Russians had long coveted the straits. The Ottomans, however, were determined not to lose these economic and political lifelines.

With their German alliance, the Ottomans found themselves at war with the other Entente Powers, Britain and France. In one of the most notorious battles of the war, the Turks slaughtered thousands of British and Australasian troops at Gallipoli in 1915 as part of their campaign to hold onto the Dardanelles. Unsurprisingly, such battles, even in the heat of war, are hard to forget and have become part of the Australian and New Zealander national consciousness in particular. Not only that, but the Turks earned themselves long-held resentment by Western European forces, whose war efforts were hampered by having to fight on an additional front. Considering the Ottomans were also in direct competition with Britain and France for territories in the Middle East, there was a resurgence in animosity towards the former marauders of Central Europe by politicians and civilians alike. This was particularly piquant given that the British and French had given thousands of lives to protect Turkish interests against the Russians during the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The Ottoman alliance with Germany had been a result of their desire to weaken Russia, rather than to embroil themselves with the French and British. However, after several victories against the Allies at the beginning of the war, it was the Russians who began to inflict defeats on the increasingly-beleaguered and under-provisioned Turks. During fighting in the Caucuses, Russia won several key battles against their Ottoman enemies. One particular phase of the campaign, fought in Anatolia, saw the beginning of the Turkish deportation of ethnic Armenians to other regions of their Empire, including Syria and Mesopotamia. An Armenian volunteer force had fought with the Russians, with whom they had greater cultural and religious affinities, and the Ottomans retaliated against the Armenian population, in what has come to be seen as an act of genocide.

Victims of the Armenian "Genocide"

It would take the Arab Revolt from 1916, where various Arab leaders sought to overthrow Turkish rule in the Middle East, for the Ottoman Empire to finally be brought to its knees. However, the Turks’ actions in the First World War left a legacy as bitter as the days of their brutal zenith. Aside from the atrocities of Armenia and the Gallipoli campaign, the Ottomans sought to use the War to their advantage against Western Europe. Whilst the Turks were not alone in their motives – the imperialist Russians were also highly culpable in this instance – the existing mistrust towards them after years of religious and political tension further ingrained them as enemies of the people of Western Europe. Any solidarity brought by the Crimean War had long been forgotten.


The Secular Turkish State

The First World War and the resulting Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) finally finished off the Ottoman Empire. In its place was a new secular Turkish state, headed by independence leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. With Turkey’s former Middle Eastern territories already handed over to the Allied Powers after the Treaty of Sevrés (1920), Atatürk set about creating an internal-looking Turkish state. He helped inspire a new sense of Turkish nationalism, withdrawn from the world around it, and quickly quashed any internal dissent.

Consequently, by the time the Second World War came around, the Turks were anything but eager to get involved. Atatürk had died in 1938 and his successor, İsmet İnönü, was determined to maintain Turkish neutrality during the War despite the desperate entreaties of the Allied and Axis powers for his support. Despite the arrival of an opportunity for Turkey to cement a positive future relationship with the rest of Europe, İnönü delayed Turkish entrance into the War until February 1945. Even then, it was little more than a ceremonious gesture to court Allied support in the future. Whilst Turkish neutrality was understandable given the previous horrors of the First World War under the Ottomans, an opportunity was missed to portray Turkey in a new light of responsibility, engaging positively with European affairs. Its status as an outsider was preserved.

Churchill and Roosevelt failed to garner İsmet İnönü's support at the 1943 Cairo Conference

Turkish neutrality was only completely revoked with its accession to NATO in 1952. This move was ostensibly an effort to prevent Stalin’s Soviets from making a move against the treasured Dardanelles and Bosporus once again. As a condition for joining NATO, the Turks were pressed into democratic reform. However, although the first multi-party elections in the country’s history had been held under İnönü in 1946, they were anything but free and fair. Therefore, come the 1950 election, with the world’s attention turned towards Turkey, İnönü had little choice but to behave himself. His party subsequently lost.

If this democratic transition was supposed to inspire a new positive era of Western European-Turkish relations, it was a sore disappointment. A 1960 coup d’état, in which İnönü supposedly conspired, led to the fall of the Democratic Party government. When the subsequent military junta returned power to the civilians in 1961, it was unsurprisingly İnönü’s Republican People’s Party that assumed leadership of the country. Elections were immediately held, in which the opposition leaders were imprisoned. It would take until 1965 before İnönü was eventually toppled for good. However, his determination to cling on to power had prevented the embedding of democratic values in a country now eager to engage with the rest of Europe.

With controversial attacks against the ethnic Kurds in Turkey’s eastern provinces persisting after the 1960s, and democracy still anything but entrenched, there was still little in common between the Turks and Western Europe. Despite closer economic integration and Turkish immigration to mainland Europe since then, the legacy of the Ottomans and two World Wars in which the Turks did little to endear themselves to the European people, has created the suspicions that exist today.


An EU with Turkish Membership?

Turkey’s historical role in Europe is problematic. For the most part, Turkish intervention in Europe has spelt trouble for the traditional political, economic and cultural hierarchies that exist there. Who’s to say that the same thing won’t result from Turkish EU membership? Admittedly, the days of rampaging Ottomans, conquering territory by land and sea, is not going to re-occur. However, with bureaucratic infighting already one of the EU’s biggest stumbling blocks, Turkish inclusion will surely only enhance the problem.

The reality is that French concerns are legitimate. Turkey is not like the rest of Europe. Indeed, in terms of culture and religion they could not be more distinctive, a worrying prospect considering the EU’s desire for peaceful integration of its multi-national population. There remains too much distrust between Western Europe, in particular, and the Turks, whose historical record is no antidote to existing tension.

Two points, however, are worth considering. Firstly, during the debate over the Armenian Genocide law this week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé expressed anger at a motion he perceived would “kill off dialogue with the Turks”. He reminded his administration that “the Turks have just ordered 100 Airbuses [French manufactured] and there are 1,000 French companies doing business in Turkey”. Clearly, economic interdependence between the two nations is already well-established. Secondly, there has been a rising current of dissatisfaction amongst Turkish MPs towards the prospect of EU membership. Many now believe that, with the ongoing Eurozone crisis and antipathy towards their country, that Turkey would be better off retaining the status quo. Given that economic ties are already well-established, this renewed distaste for EU integration might be in the best interests of Turkey and the rest of Europe in general.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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