The many differences between the European Union and Turkey will soon be overridden by one motivating factor.
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By all accounts, it should not work. Turkey—a 99.8 percent Muslim nation—has a running bid to join the European Union. Everything seems to be against these two entities working closely together.
History: The Ottoman Turks overran the Roman Empire’s eastern capital of Constantinople in 1453.
Religion: Europe, aka Christendom, is the home of Catholicism and birthplace of Protestantism. For centuries, Turkey was the seat of Islam’s caliphate.
Politics: A June 2013 row between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan exemplified this point. It started with a crackdown on an anti-government protest. Ms. Merkel decried the police reaction as “much too harsh.”
The Associated Press described the political friction: “The demonstrations were sparked by a police crackdown on environmental activists in Istanbul May 31, but protesters also criticized what some regard as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian style of leadership.”
According to Reuters, Ms. Merkel stated, “Turkey is an important partner but…our European values of the freedom to protest, freedom of opinion, the rule of law and religious freedom, are always valid and are not negotiable.”
While the squabble between Berlin and Ankara (the Turkish capital) meant a slight delay in renewed EU-membership talks, the Middle Eastern nation’s bid for membership was never truly in danger.
A spokesman for Ms. Merkel told AP: “Neither the chancellor nor the government are in any way questioning the accession process…It’s not about whether, only about how the accession process is continued.”
The Europe-Turkey courtship has been going on for about 100 years, and the situation embodies the cliche, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”
Turkey’s geographical location means difficult relations with surrounding countries. To the northeast is Russia by way of Georgia and Armenia. To the southeast is Iraq and Iran. Syria is to the south and European borders of Bulgaria and Greece to the west.
This patchwork-quilt neighborhood has made diplomacy a veritable tightrope act. And for a while, Ankara succeeded in keeping its head down.
Yet times are changing, as an extended quote from Foreign Policy magazine explains: “Not so long ago, Turkey seemed to have found the elusive formula for foreign policy success. Its newly-adopted philosophy, ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ won praise both at home and abroad as Ankara reengaged with the Middle East following a half century of estrangement. It expanded business and trade links with Arab states, as well as Iran, lifted visa restrictions with neighboring countries, and even helped mediate some of the region’s toughest disputes, brokering talks between Syria and Israel, Fatah and Hamas, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
But the publication explained that now the “zero problems” approach has reached an end: “By blowing the regional status quo into oblivion, the Arab Spring forced Turkey out of this policy of non-interference. Ankara has struggled with the notion that it could not bend the region to its will: In Libya, before it ended up helping unseat [Moammar Gadhafi], Turkey argued that the West had no business intervening against him. In Syria, it has broken completely with [Bashar] Assad, embroiling itself in a conflict that shows no sign of ending. And in Egypt, of course, it is setting itself on a collision course with the most populous state in the Arab world.
“The extent to which Turkey has since ditched its softly-softly approach to the region has been surprising. One of the commandments of ‘zero problems’ was what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to as ‘equidistance’—that is, the refusal to take sides in regional disputes. This was always something of a myth, particularly when it came to the Israeli-Palestine dispute, where the government seldom missed a chance to bolster its regional and Islamic credentials by slighting the Israelis. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, equidistance appears to have gone into the gutter.
“It’s not only in Egypt where Turkey is now seen as a partisan actor, rather than a neutral problem-solver. In Iraq, [Turkey] has openly defied Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, accusing it of fomenting sectarian strife and going behind its back to negotiate oil deals with the Kurdish Regional Government, which administers the country’s north. In Syria, it has lent unqualified support to the anti-regime rebels, letting them operate freely on its soil, turning a blind eye to their atrocities, and reportedly criticizing the United States for branding the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group.”
The fact that Turkey’s political opinions are often at odds with the West makes its close ties with the European Union even stranger.
Complicating matters between the two powers, tensions between Europeans and Turks go back thousands of years. Roman Emperor Constantine created an eastern capital in Constantinople, which today is Istanbul—Turkey’s largest and most populated city. As the classical Roman Empire waned, the eastern leg flourished as the Byzantine Empire, with famous rulers including Justinian I.
By the 1400s, fading Byzantine glory left a power vacuum to be filled by the Ottoman Turks. In 1453, the Turks seized Constantinople. The Turks had superior fighting forces and firepower, which included a cannon that could hurl a 1,000-pound projectile over a mile.
Among the spoils of victory was Justinian’s Hagia Sophia—a cathedral with one of the largest domes in the world. The structure was converted into a mosque and in 1935 became a museum.
At their individual zeniths, the rival Roman and Ottoman empires held many of the same regions including parts of what are today known as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Greece and some Balkan states, among others.
From 1453 until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the office of Turkish sultan was synonymous with political and military prowess. During the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, the famed ruler made a declaration that demonstrated his sweeping power: “I am God’s slave and sultan of this world. By the grace of God I am head of Muhammad’s community. God’s might and Muhammad’s miracles are my companions. I am Suleyman, in whose name the hutbe [Friday sermon] is read in Mecca and Medina. In Baghdad I am the shah, in Byzantine realms the Caesar, and in Egypt the sultan” (The Arab World: An Illustrated History).
Yet Europe did not rest on its laurels during this time of Turkish dominance. It had an answer to Ottoman’s Islamic kingdom: the Holy Roman Empire, with each ruler crowned by the pope himself.
Animosity continued with longtime military conflicts, including the Ottoman-Hungarian wars from 1366 to about 1526 and the Ottoman-Hapsburgs wars between 1526 and 1791.
With this history as a lone guide, improved relations between Europe and Turkey seem impossible.
Yet something curious happened early in the 1900s. A German-Turkish alliance in 1914 at the start of World War I began nearly a century of improved relations. The two nations also signed a nonaggression pact in 1941 during World War II.
Diplomatic olive branches were not extended to Germany alone. Soon, Turkey was consistently seeking close ties with all of Europe.
In 1952, Turkey became the first and only Muslim nation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The move bolstered the West’s position against Soviet Russia.
Turkey then applied in 1959 for an associate membership in the European Economic Community, the precursor to today’s EU.
The Islamic nation’s bid succeeded as the two powers signed the “Ankara Agreement” in 1963, which declared they were both determined “to establish ever closer bonds between the Turkish peoples and the peoples brought together in the European Economic Community.”
Turkey applied for a full EEC membership in 1987, and, in 1997, the Luxembourg Council summit declared Turkey eligible to become a full-fledged EU member.
Membership talks opened in 2004, and, in 2008, the European Council set up an Accession Partnership for Turkey, which aimed to assist Turkish authorities in meeting membership criteria.
Reacting to slow progress on the accession process, the EU and Turkey launched a new “positive agenda” in 2012. A press release from the European Commission stated: “The aim of this process is to keep the accession process of Turkey alive and put it properly back on track after a period of stagnation.”
Turkey’s position in NATO seems to provide a few clues as to why Brussels and Ankara are slowly but surely working to build closer ties.
In an interview, Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City, told International Business Times that “Turkey’s membership was pivotal in terms helping NATO deal with political instability in Eastern Europe, the 1990s Balkan wars, and post-9/11 activities focused on the Middle East.”
Mr. Chandler added, “Turkey’s secular-Islamic government provides NATO [with] a cultural and political bridge into the Arab world, and NATO installations in the country give the organization an efficient means to deal with instability in the region.”
In addition to strategic interests, there are other shared traits between Europe and Turkey. Both were longtime centers of architecture, culture, intellectual pursuits, governmental systems, and military ingenuity.
The PBS documentary “Islam: an Empire of Faith” stated, “Islamic and Western civilization have the same roots: their dawning in the Fertile Crescent; the monotheism of the Jews and Christians; the classical, intellectual culture of the ancient Greeks. The two traditions are kindred spirits, alike yet very different. Islam’s legacy is intertwined with the West.”
Yet one major shared trait has been the main cause of friction between Islamic Turkey and Christendom Europe: both empires have deep religious roots.
A forum sponsored by Pew Research explored this point. Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of near eastern studies at Princeton University, said the source of the Muslim-Christian conflict comes not from the two religions’ differences but from their similarities.
“These two religions, and as far as I am aware, no others in the world, believe that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive,” Mr. Lewis said. “They believe that they are the fortunate recipients of God’s final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves…but to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever barriers there may be in the way.”
Because both believe they hold the key to human salvation, Mr. Lewis said tensions between Christendom and Islam occur because each have “aspired to the same role”—bringing God’s message to the whole world—“each seeing it as a divinely ordained mission.”
But how does this apply to today—a time in which many people call Europe a “post-Christian” continent? Even though Europe is not dominated by religion as it once was, centuries of traditional Christianity’s footprints are still found across EU member-states.
Modern societies like to think that past events have little effect on the present. But it is futile to attempt to change deeply embedded national characteristics.
French Historian Francois Guizot famously remarked in his Essais sur l’histoire de France, “When nations have existed for a long and glorious time, they cannot break with their past, whatever they do…they remain fundamentally in character and destiny such as their history has formed them. Even powerful revolutions cannot abolish national traditions…therefore it is most important, not only for the sake of intellectual curiosity, but also for the good management of international relations, to know and understand these traditions.”
With this in mind, the Turkey-Europe bond becomes even stranger. Why are these two world powers bucking a previous trend of animosity and war solidified over hundreds of years?
The concluding part of this series, to be printed in the next issue of The Real Truth, will delve deeper into European and Turkish history and uncover the core motivation for their relationship.
Despite the towering obstacles of history, religion and politics, this one driving factor will soon push the two powers toward an increasingly close—and iron-clad—relationship.