The rich history of the city of Istanbul (Greek city, then the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and finally the capital of the Ottoman Empire) would alone tip the scales in favour of its European Union membership. From a historical-cultural perspective, Turkey is already part of Europe. It is not, however, from a political point of view. The reasons for which the process has ground to a halt and the prospects of eventual membership were debated during a round table, organised within the framework of the Resetdoc Istanbul Seminars, by Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, French sociologist Alain Touraine, and Resetdoc’s editor-in-chief and cofounder Giancarlo Bosetti as well as Cengiz Aktar, professor of European Studies at the Bahçesehir University.
According to Aktar, Turkey is now experiencing a period of transformation, perhaps the most profound since the days of Kemalist secularism. The process of joining the E.U., begun in 1999, has, in recent years, suffered a number of set-backs. Furthermore, in the European collective imagination, Turkey has change from being a candidate country to “a country with 70 million Muslims.”
This is a prospect that frightens European institutions significantly. In his gloomy portrayal of the situation, Aktar outlined the existence of an anti-Turkish lobby within the establishment in Brussels, hard at work to derail the joining process silently (and systematically). Led by France, Germany, Holland and Austria, the anti-Turk lobby can rely not only on important institutional personalities (the French President for example) but also on think-tanks of intellectuals and other various Turkey-sceptics who oppose a purely ideological rejection. Over time the idea of ‘full membership’ was abandoned and replaced by the concept of a ‘privileged partnership’ (as recently mentioned by Merkel), a diplomatic ploy to distance the idea of full membership. In spite of the Europeanization work started under Atatürk and the reforms undertaken (abolition of the death penalty, acknowledgment of the rights of the Kurdish minority), Turkey’s entry in the E.U. remains a difficult gamble and there are even greater obstacles on the horizon such as the Armenian issue and Cyprus.
Alain Touraine instead addressed the real cultural rather than economic gap that exists, since it is linked to fear of having a Muslim country in the European Union. Condemning the example set by Sarkozy, for having launched the debate on national identity, Touraine stated that Europe can only survive if it manages to become something more than just a bureaucratic and administrative organisation filled with particularism and nationalism. Europe must manage to mutate into a multicultural entity capable of integrating diversities. From a geopolitical point of view also, an inward looking Europe, incapable of taking initiatives or of playing an increasingly important role on the international stage but above all of establishing a dialogue with the Islamic world, would be a Europe without a future. From such a perspective, Turkey’s entry in the E.U. could be the best encouragement for mending the West/Islam rift that U.S. policies in recent years have contributed to amplify.
Far from concentrating on the ‘how” Zygmunt Bauman instead spoke about how one must identify ‘who’ can assume responsibility for such a revolutionary change in perspective. In spite of the importance of people such as Schuman or De Gasperi, and the fact that the idea of a European culture remains per se fundamental, there is however little sign of intellectuals using their energy to defend a different idea of Europe. The current E.U. administration seems to its citizens an empty and distant building, one that is even ‘illegitimate’ as far as political consensus is concerned (its representatives are not directly elected by the people). In the absence of another ‘idea’ of Europe, it can be defined only on the basis of the exasperation of borders, of limitations not to be surpassed.
A European governance is today pure utopia and hence the ball is in the hands of national governments, reeling in security obsession, in incessant law-making to staunch phenomena such as immigration, the proliferation of multidenominational contexts or so as to enact anti-terrorist and liberticidal mechanisms. According to Bauman we are moving towards an era of simplification, of clearly identifying enemies, of “rigid” borders and impassable frontiers. The enlargement of the market, growing unemployment and the consequent rebirth of nationalism and particularism lead Bauman to state that Europe remains after all a great-unfinished entity. Its mission, said the philosopher, can only be to remain the beacon of civilisation and to promote a new kind of art, that of collective coexistence.
Translated by Francesca Simmons