Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Coin controversy

There’s been a lot of noise made over these new euro coins over the past couple days, with people advocating for Turkey’s entrance into the EU horrified that EU finance ministers had adopted a design for the new Euro coins that leaves Turkey off the map.

The coins are for the new members states of Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus, and feature a map of Europe that doesn’t feature Turkey. Those who support Turkey’s accession to the EU are furious, saying it reflects a bias against the potential future member state. And the English-language press has picked up the story and portrayed it as a deliberate slight against Turkey.

Just take a look at this Reuters article. Two European Parliament members tell the news service:
"Clearly the Council (of EU member states) is not embarrassed that the new European map should include, as well as Ukraine and Moldova, some dictatorships such as Belarus or authoritarian ones like Russia. But it refuses to feature a democratic country like Turkey with which accession negotiations are under way.”
While it is true that the original design submitted by the European Commission did feature Turkey and other neighbouring states on it, for the media to claim that EU countries have ‘erased Turkey from the map of Europe’ is a bit disingenuous, because Turkey is not traditionally on a map of Europe in the first place.

Just do a google image search for ‘Europe map.’ A majority of the resulting maps omit Turkey from the map. Pull up the Wikipedia entry for Europe and right there in the first paragraph is the sentence, “Europe is bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Mediterranean Sea, to the southeast by the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea and the waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. To the east, Europe is generally divided from Asia by the water divide of the Ural Mountains, the Ural River, and by the Caspian Sea.”
Or take a look at the Europe section for the web site CountyReports.com. Again, no Turkey. So to say that the EU finance ministers have taken a provocative step and ‘erased Turkey from the map of Europe’ isn’t very accurate. Because including Turkey on a map would in itself have been a provocative act, giving an implicit nod to the country’s accession. After all, if the EU chose now to include Turkey on a map of Europe on the euro, Turkey could later argue that the EU had implicitly acknowledged that Turkey is part of the continent. And the crux of opposition to Turkey’s joining is that it is not geographically or culturally part of Europe.

Such is the difficulty of trying to define a continent that doesn’t actually exist. Europe is actually not a continent at all, but rather an extension of the continent of Eurasia. The historical borders between Europe and Asia are really just a manmade cultural creation.

Yet those borders, which cut Europe off from Asia at the Ural and Caucasus Mountains and Black and Mediterranean Seas, have been firmly established for 1,500 years. In fact the word ‘Asia’ itself comes from the Roman name for the province that is today Turkey, Asia Minor. The fact is that since the concept of ‘Europe’ was first conceived, Asia Minor has never been considered to be part of it.

So the problem is, even though only four percent of Turkey (Thrace, across the Bosporus Straight) is geographically in Europe technically, the accepted definition of Europe is subject to scrutiny because it is a man-made, rather than an earth-made, distinction.

But even if there were a natural earth-made distinction, would this even matter? After all, all geographical borders are man-made. Yes there is a clear natural, geological division between the continents of Africa and Eurasia, yet culturally it is really the Sahara Desert that separates Africa from the Middle East, not the isthmus of Suez. Mexico is technically part of North America but more properly belongs to ‘Latin America,’ which is not a continent at all but a cultural area. After all, everyone knows that when one refers to ‘North America,’ they are referring to the US and Canada. If a “North American Union” were created, Mexico would most certainly not be a part of it.
So what do continents mean anyway? What constitutes Europe? Perhaps the only definition to fall back on is culture. But where does Turkey fall on this line? Most of its cultural ties are with the middle east, much of which it ruled over for hundreds of years as the Ottoman empire. Yet at the same time it is a secular democracy, a European trait. Is it not part of Europe because it is a Muslim country? That argument doesn't work either, because Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina are Muslim countries, and they are indisputably part of Europe and appear likely to enter the EU. By the same token, the nation of Georgia, south of the Caucasus mountains, is Christian and white, but is not usually included on a map of Europe.

My point is this: You can’t say Turkey is definitively not in Europe, and you can't say that it definitively is in Europe. But one thing you can say is that it is definitively part of the Middle East. The secular democracy argument is just about the only one you could use to remove it from that distinction, and even that is just a current circumstance rather than an inherant trait.

To add Turkey to the map of Europe, and to the EU, is a drastic move. It would not be a confirmation of a situation that already exists but rather the creation of a new situation. Those demanding the country’s entry to the EU should think long and hard about whether this is a new situation worth creating. It may be that the answer is yes. But accusing those who wish to stick to the status quo of being ‘racist’ or ‘anti-Muslim’ doesn’t hold water. To leave Turkey out is a non-action. It is putting Turkey in that would be an action.

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