Prime Minister Erdoğan's recent visits to Cologne, Vienna, Paris and Lyon generated a series of interesting debates in the European press. Some German media outlets took their obsession with Erdoğan to the extreme point of running a small and eventually ineffective campaign against him, calling him polarizing, divisive and unwelcome. A few politicians hopped on the bandwagon with hopes of perhaps scoring few points in local politics.
In his rallies, Erdoğan spoke to tens of thousands of Turks in Europe in a show of strength and solidarity, which many European politicians openly admired. One elected official told Erdoğan, "If I could gather 20 thousand people in my city, I would be elected over and over again!"
Erdoğan told his fellow Turks to fully participate in the political, economic, cultural and artistic life of their host countries and urged them to learn German, French, Dutch, English, etc. He warned against cultural assimilation but encouraged integration, calling them 'Turkey's ambassadors' in Europe.
There is nothing strange about Erdoğan meeting with his compatriots as he is accustomed to holding big rallies. Until Erdoğan, however, no Turkish leader has been able to gather such large crowds outside Turkey. By reaching out to around 6 million expatriot Turks, he is telling them that they are no longer alone and that they are entitled to legal and democratic rights like other citizens.
Erdoğan is committed to serving his people and joining the European Union is part of this mission. In his recent trips to European capitals and contacts with European heads of states, he once again underlined Turkey's strategic goal of joining the European Union, suggesting that this means more than just short-term economic gains.
But as Europe deals with its own deepening crisis of euro-skepticism, it seems unable to treat Turkey as a strategic partner. Individual countries in Europe want to have amicable and strong relations with Turkey, and in fact many do. But some EU states do not want to see a robust, populous Turkey among the members.
This dual attitude is a source of frustration for many in and outside of Turkey. European countries seek good economic relations and value Turkey as a NATO ally in security cooperation.
They want to provide military assistance and see political stability and economic development in Turkey. Their citizens visit Turkey and welcome Turkish tourists to European cities where they enjoy Turkish food, music and culture.
Furthermore, in addition to European countries hosting millions of Turkish visitors in their cities, they also employ many of them in their businesses and know that these Turkish workers and their fathers helped rebuild their economies after World War II. The vast majority of Turks living in Europe work, are productive and participate in economic and political life, abiding by the laws and giving something back to the society in which they live.
In turn, Ankara wants to maintain good political relations with European capitals and improve Turkey's share in European markets. As a matter of fact, about 45 percent of Turkey's foreign trade is with Europe and Turkey is a member of major European institutions. The 5 million Turks living in Europe offer unique opportunities for cultural interaction and creative co-existence.
This is all well and good and makes a good story for multiculturalism, however it falls short of full membership. The anti-Turkey camp in the EU seems to be saying that they want trade agreements, to work on security issues and perhaps do a bit of cultural interchange, but have no desire to give you a seat in the EU In short - they want Turkey to be a good partner but not an equal member.
This problem has two dimensions. First, there is the old issue of Turks in the European political and social imagination. The "terrible Turk," who captured Constantinople, ruled the Balkans and southern Europe for several centuries and went as far as Vienna is perhaps still hovering over some European minds. Mozart's "Turkish March" evokes feelings of movement, agility, sympathy and warmth but perhaps some are still fixated upon "the
march of the Turks" in the 21st century.
While many Europeans welcome their Turkish neighbors, some are distrustful of them. Turks in Europe need to do their part to establish trust and overcome inherited prejudices.
Secondly, euro-skepticism is a deeper problem in Europe today than it is in Turkey. European enlargement faces numerous challenges because the current EU rules and institutions are seen, paradoxically, as too ineffective and bureaucratic on the one hand, and overly intrusive and polarizing on the other. The EU faces the typical 'me-firstin- the-club' problem where each member wants to present its specific agenda as the best option for the whole, assuming that its own interests will always be in the interest of others.
This is certainly not only specific to the EU You see it at the U.N. on every major and minor issue. There is plenty of it in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its variations can be found in the African Union, Arab League and similar organizations. In the absence of strong leadership and a common future agenda, the EU will remain divided and polarized on key issues including Turkey's membership.
No matter how many more political, economic and judicial reforms Erdoğan introduces, it seems those wary of Turkish accession to the EU will find new excuses to delay the process in an increasingly self-doubting Europe. This does not mean that Erdoğan should stop reforms or give up on EU membership. To the contrary, he should continue with his reform agenda.
Turkey has many friends and supporters in the EU with whom Erdoğan works closely. By raising their voices more loudly, they too can help Turkey
and Europe come closer.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey