Turkey, Europe and the Clash of Civilisations

3 October 2005

Turkey, Europe and the Clash of Civilisations

By Gwynne Dyer

“What do you gain by adding 99 percent Muslim Turkey to the European Union?” asked Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan last month. And then he answered his own question: “You gain a bridge between the EU and the 1.5 billion-strong Islamic world. An alliance of civilisations will start.”

You don’t have to go very far in Turkey to find people who reject Erdogan’s vision: the militant nationalist right, the radical left, religious fanatics, and people who just worry that joining the EU will slow down the country’s rapid economic growth. And you don’t have to go far in the EU to find people who are equally opposed to Turkey’s membership. But the official negotiations on Turkey’s membership nevertheless opened in Luxembourg on the evening of 3 October.

It should have been the morning of 3 October, but the bitter argument within the EU went on right down to the wire and beyond, with the Austrian government demanding that Turkey be offered not full membership but only a “privileged partnership”. Since any one of the EU’s 25 member countries can block a proposal to admit a new member, it took two days of arm-twisting and bribery to get the Austrians to drop their objections, and by the end the Turks were on the brink of walking away themselves. This “alliance of civilisations” stuff is not easy to do.

It was hardly surprising that it was Austria that was digging its heels in, for Austria was for several centuries the frontier between Christian Europe and the Turkish-ruled Balkans. It was at the second siege of Vienna in 1683 that the relentless advance of the Turks into Europe was finally stopped, and for Austrians that crisis of more than 300 years ago remains the event that defines their national identity.

Behind the Austrians’ arguments that Turkey is too populous and too poor to fit into the European Union (73 million people and only a third of the EU’s average per capita GDP), their basic objection was that Christianity and Islam do not mix. Admitting Turkey would turn the EU into a 20 percent Muslim entity, which is just a recipe for trouble. And that view was shared by a significant minority of Christian conservatives and other sceptics elsewhere, especially in France and Germany.

Pro-Turkish governments in the EU were just as prone to define the argument in “civilisational” and sometimes in apocalyptic terms. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC on 2 October that “we’re concerned about a so-called clash of civilisations. We’re concerned about this theological-political divide, which could open up even further the boundary between so-called Christian-heritage states and those of Islamic heritage.” And you just want to tell them all to take their medication and calm down.

There is an attractive symbolism in the idea that Turkish membership in the EU would finally begin to repair the split that tore the old classical Mediterranean civilisation in two with the rise of Islam fourteen centuries ago, but it is not really about an “alliance” between Christianity and Islam. On the contrary, it has become possible only because both Western Europeans and Turks have ceased to define themselves solely or even mainly in religious terms. Many people in Western Europe and most people in Turkey are still believers, but it doesn’t swallow up their whole identity.

Rejecting Turkey merely on the grounds that it is Muslim would condemn the EU to being just “a Christian club,” in Erdogan’s cutting phrase, but it would not trigger some vast confrontation between the West and the Muslim world. The Turks would be severely miffed, but most people in other Muslim countries already think of Europe as a Christian club, having no idea of how small a role religion plays in the public life of most EU countries. Small disaster, not many hurt.

The real reasons for the EU to want Turkey in are much more specific. The EU will have need of Turkey’s relatively young and growing population as its own population ages, and Turkey’s high economic growth rate (8 or 9 percent this year) would help to bring up the rather modest EU average. A surprising number of Europeans also care about healing the old rift that tore Europe itself apart — for Turkey, although Muslim, was a European great power for five centuries, and was firmly established in the Balkans long before it conquered most of the Arab world.

For Turks, whose free-trade relationship with the EU already gives them most of the economic benefits of membership, the advantages lie mainly in anchoring the country in a web of supra-national institutions and laws that guarantee the country’s democratic and secular character. Erdogan has already used the requirements of EU membership as a lever with which to force democratic and human rights reforms on a reluctant army and bureaucracy, and membership negotiation will enable him to go further in the same direction.

When will Turkey actually join? Certainly not before 2015, by which time the economic gap between Turkey and the richer EU countries may have narrowed considerably — and maybe never, for the entry negotiations are not guaranteed to succeed. But the fact that negotiations have finally started sends all the right signals, and the talks themselves are a useful tool for Turkish reformers. That’s enough for the moment.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“The fact…identity”;

and “There is…identity”)