Turkey’s location at the east end of the Mediterranean makes it an obligatory passage between a largely Christian Europe and a largely Muslim Asia. However, since Europe’s initial steps toward a supra-national entity in 1955, there has been an unspoken assumption that this Christian community could not welcome a Muslim country. (As with the Ukraine, another border nation, largely for cultural reasons, ‘Europe’ is an attraction, no matter how dire its straits.)
In 1963, The European Economic Community (EEC) signed an Association Agreement for the establishment of a customs union with Turkey that did not come to fruition until 1995. In April 1987, Turkey applied for full EEC membership, but did not actually become eligible until the Helsinki European Council of December 1999. Accession negotiations started in October 2005 and in December, the European Council adopted a revised Accession Partnership for Turkey.
As these long, drawn-out steps suggest, by 2016, Turkey is no closer to becoming a member of the European Union than it was in 1955. What has changed is that now it plays a key role in the union’s survival. While several small European countries have Muslim minorities, overwhelmingly Christian Europe could not see itself welcoming a Muslim country equal to one-fifth its total size. And yet, in the years since the end of World War II, it has welcomed sizable numbers of individual Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa to do its menial labor (including a sizable Turkish contingent in Germany).
France did its best to hang on to its North African colonies: Tunisia became independent in 1956, Morocco in 1955, but it was not until 1961 that Algeria, the largest of the three, achieved independence after a bloody, seven-year long war. Although Libya became independent in 1951, it was entrusted to a king until Ghaddafi took power in 1969 (Similarly, once no longer a British protectorate, Iran was put into the ‘safe’ hands of a Shah until the 1979 Shiite revolution.) In the 21st century, shackled to NATO, Europe has participated in wars against a growing list of Muslim nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen.
During the seventy years since the end of World War II, Turkey has had by far the most tumultuous history of Europe’s Muslim neighbors. Most on-line articles end in the nineteen-eighties, unlike the detailed and lengthy histories on most countries. The reason, I suspect, is that Turkey’s 20th century history includes several periods of military rule. The Wikipedia article is the most complete and even it simply provides a series of dates:
“The single-party period was followed by multiparty democracy after 1945. Turkish democracy was interrupted by military coups d’état in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1984, the PKK began an insurgency against the Turkish government; the conflict, which has claimed over 40,000 lives, continues today. Since the liberalization of the Turkish economy during the 1980s, the country has enjoyed stronger economic growth and greater political stability.”After being ruled by strictly secular military alternating with mainly left-wing civilian secular governments, since 2002, it has been ruled by the center-right Islamic Party, Justice and Development, under Recip Tayep Erdogan.
After 9/11, the European Union continued to delay welcoming this Muslim country of 76.6 million, corresponding to a tenth of the EU’s total while, shackled to NATO, it participated in wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen.
To recap: Europe has systematically put off welcoming the Muslim country of Turkey, while steadily increasing its Muslim population and participating in mainly US-led attacks against a series of Muslim countries. Now it finds itself dependent on Turkey to halt the flow of refugees fleeing the countries it helped destroy, many of whom have ended up there as the Middle Eastern country closest to the EU.
Putting aside Erdogan’s shameful war against its Kurdish minority that spills over to Syria’s Kurdish minority, his determination to end left-wing Shi’ite rule under Bashar al-Assad, hints that he dreams of reconstituting the Ottoman Empire, his murky relations with ISIS and its affiliates, as hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to arrive in his country as the gateway to Europe, the only thing the EU is offering Turkey in terms of access is visa-free travel, with nary a hint that perhaps this relatively well-run Muslim country could become part of the European community. It’s no wonder the Turkish president is demanding endless sums of money to keep the refugees until they either give up reaching Europe – or at least accept to be processed in Turkey for eventual resettlement in one or another European country.
As thousands continued to leave Turkey for a perilous journey to the closest Greek islands, the EU’s ‘suits’ gathered for the nth time, coming up with the idea that for each refugee caught trying to get to Europe on illegal Turkish boats, a refugee in a Turkish holding facility would be flown to the EU!
Small wonder this plan has the EU’s legal experts up in arms: that’s like trying to pull a rabbit out of what was once a top-hat, but is now merely a beret squashed over one ear.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.”