Turkish intellectuals and Europe

Article published on Sept. 8, 2003
Article published on Sept. 8, 2003
Europe represents a slippery and elusive object of desire for Turkey, but Turkish intellectuals are wondering whether it might not be best to define Europe before beginning to covet it.

The modernisation of Turkey was meant to take the institutional form of a triangle, with the army at the apex, supported by a secular administration, and all resting on a broad base of progressive intellectuals. Yet this modernisation has consistently found itself caught between two contradictory impulses. On the one side, there is the vessel of the state, sailing Turkey westwards into a kind of 'Europeanised' development - that is, national, secular and positivist. And on the other side, there is the concept of 'social progress', acting as an anchor in the east - the guarantee of national independence in the face of western imperial encroachment.

Although during the course of several coups d’État, the intellectuals have been expelled from this progressive triangle, the original problem has not disappeared. It cuts a perpendicular line across society and touches every perspective. It is never so striking as when the attention centres on Europe - a frequent focal point in Turkish intellectual and political debate.

The beginning of negotiations for accession to the European union, which it is hoped will take place in spring 2005, would conclude the long march instigated by Atatürk, the father of the republic. It could even be seen as the culmination of the thousand-year-old migration of the Turkish people westwards. These negotiations are therefore endowed with a very strong symbolic significance. In the words of Ismet Berkan, the editor of the daily newspaper Radikal, 'Turkey is experiencing the most crucial eighteen months of its history. I can only compare it to the period of the negotiation of the Lausanne treaty in 1923' (15/07/03).

Silent coup d'État

These circumstances are causing the re-emergence of the imperialist question. Fast-approaching deadlines and the acceleration of reforms demanded by Brussels reinforce the assumptions of that school of thought which sees globalisation, of which the EU is simply one symptom, as a threat to national independence. Erol Manisali is a figurehead of this movement. Professor of economics in Istanbul, and columnist for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet (The Republic), he has won renown defending his theory of a 'silent coup d'État' orchestrated both by the EU since 1995 and by the signing of the customs union with Turkey. 'To enter or not to enter? They keep the debates about the EU going by trying to make us count rhinoceroses, Ionesco-style. The signing of the customs union agreement is nothing less than an act of colonisation. The recognition of Turkey's status as a candidate country in 1999 was simply a decoy designed to bind our country more tightly to the European Union.'

Mümtaz Soysal, political adviser to the Cypriot-Turk president, and Attila Ilhan, author and journalist, take the same tone: it is equally prevalent on the right and on the left, revealing a significant minority of nationalist persuasion. The idea of a conspiracy is never far off. Suspicion is naturally amplified by ambiguous political attitudes in Brussels, coupled with stalling tactics. It is also exacerbated by the strategic absences of an EU which considers its enlargement less as a political act than as a natural process driven by issues of identity.

‘At a time when Bush's clique is deciding to destroy the world security structure, the EU commission in Brussels believes that it can console its closest neighbours with the small rewards of prosperity and freedom of movement. This is an attitude that speaks volumes about the delicate situation currently faced by the EU. A diagnosis of schizophrenia is not far from being accurate.' This is what Ahmet Insed wrote on the 23 March this year in reaction to Prodi and Patten's proposal regarding the idea of a circle of countries friendly to the union. 'While dreaming of a buffer circle of friendly countries intended to preserve it from barbarians, perhaps the EU will wake up one day surrounded by those other barbarians with civilised faces from the extreme west.'

A lecturer at Paris I university as well as at the Istanbul Galatasaray university, Ahmet Insel contributes to the magazine entitled Birikim, and runs the Iletisim publishing house. Specialising in questioning contemporary economic dogma (Mustafa Sönmez, Korkut Boratav) and in the analysis of new forms of domination, this laboratory of the new left, allergic to ideological reflexes, represents an intellectual point of reference in Turkey. Considered to be the driving force behind Turkish democratisation, the EU does not escape their scrutiny.

Oral Calislar, an intimate friend of Yachar Kemal, is an author and columnist for the Cumhuriyet newspaper. He defends the converging positions, and last March, wrote: 'Turkish leaders have only ever made use of the gap between the EU and the United States in the context of narrow, short term political calculations. They have never thought that it could become a strategically important difference. That is why the process of joining the EU has always been warped in Turkey: the general mentality which decides the destiny of this country has never been capable of assimilating European democratic values'.

Popular opinion about Europe is hazy and ill defined, with no precise conception the implications of joining the EU. There is the accepted idea of a kind of schizophrenia, according to which 'Brussels stands for prosperity and Washington, security' (Ahmet Insel). This is a consensus of opinion shared in financial circles, liberals united by moderate Islamists whose political party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), is currently in power. The European torpor described by Ahmet Insel and the haziness of the Turkish consensus on Europe evoked by Oral Calislar are simply two sides of the same phenomenon. This popular opinion is European just as much as it is Turkish.

The Turkish challenge will only be taken up in the context of building Europe strategically, politically and socially. Europe represents an opportunity for Turkey, and vice versa. Turkey's accession must take on a significance other than that of the extension of the common market if this opportunity is not to be lost both for Turkey, condemned to a 'silent coup d'État', and for Europe, heading towards the dilution predicted by Washington, an ardent supporter of Turkey's candidature for the EU.

Eastern question

This intellectual left, which campaigns for strong EU integration, once more comes up against the imperialist question of origins. Rather than perceiving the consequence as a struggle for independence, it considers the different aspects of the issue, orientalism according to Edward Saïd, and a united, progressive concept of identity, on a European level. 'The stance taken by Giscard D'Estaing against Turkey's entry into the EU, for reasons linked to the question of identity, has compelled pro-Europeans, who are against such a culturalist position, to support Turkey', states Ahmet Insel.

'Orientalism is learning born of strength', maintains Edward Saïd. That is, learning which keeps opinion in shackles. 'This kind of reasoning, which argues, 'You belong to the third world just as you belong to islam. Your system isn't perfect but it is the best you can hope for', is no longer prevalent among many intellectuals but still represents a pervasive vision of the world. If, however, somebody (ie the EU) asks us to rethink our democracy and to bring it in line with some general criteria, then it is a sign that we are being taken seriously. It signals the end of contempt for the east,' writes Murat Belge, a journalist and essayist published by Iletisim. (4/07/03)

The strategy of the Turkish left is this: to defeat the strength of orientalist learning, not through rearguard struggles against imperialist forces, but by breaking the inner mechanism through unique representation of identity and the idea of natural, necessary development. Destroying the myths surrounding the left as well as the right, it is pursuing a third, inevitably European, way, between withdrawal and introversion on one side and total uniformisation on the other. This strategy brings to mind the compromise once sought by Atatürk between capitalism and communism.