Turkey is a candidate country to join the EU, having started accession talks in 2005. Most of the countries of continental Europe are against Turkey joining, particularly France. But the UK, backed by the United States, is forcefully pushing for Turkey's membership in the union. Nicolas Sarkozy insists that Turkey is not geographically or culturally part of Europe and does not belong in the EU. David Cameron says that it is Islamophobia that is keeping Turkey out, and that the EU should not be an 'all-Christian club'. The argument for accession stresses that Turkey's largest city as well as 3% of its territory is in Europe, and that historically Turkey (as the Ottoman Empire) ruled over many countries now in the EU including Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
In the end the argument over geography and culture is a bit of a red herring. After all, geologically Europe isn't a continent at all but rather one part of a larger Eurasian continent. Therefor any definition of Europe's boundaries, even the long-accepted historical ones of the Bosporus, the Caucasus and the Ural Mountains, are human-defined. Culture is also a tricky boundary to define. Yes Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, which bounds in closer to the Middle East and Asia, but it is also a secular state with modern European traditions that go back 150 years.
This dichotomy was very much on display during my time in Istanbul. I certainly never felt like I was in Europe, but nor did I feel like I was in the Middle East. Many things seemed familiar, while many other things seemed very different. For one thing, religion clearly plays a more prominent role in people's daily lives than in any European country I can think of. The mosques were packed, the call to prayer could be heard everywhere, and I would venture to guess that half of the Turkish women I saw were wearing headscarves. This seems to be backed up by statistics. Though it is a secular state, only 2% of Turks consider themselves atheists. Compare this with 60% of Czechs or 44% of Brits.
Istanbul is an incredibly interesting city, reflecting a dual Western and Islamic character throughout. The skyline is dotted with seemingly hundreds of mosques in Sultanhamet, while the streets are lined with hundreds of clubs and cafes in Taksim. This dual nature seemed to be reflected most poignantly in the Hagia Sophia basilica/mosque. The largest Christian cathedral for nearly 1,000 years, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque in 1452 when they conquered the city and ended the Byzantine (East Roman) empire. They added minarets and painted over the tiled iconography painted on the walls. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic it was converted into a museum and the pin was peeled off revealing the Christian iconography. They left both the Muslim and Christian elements, and today the interior of the building mixes the Christian imagery with passages from the Koran. It really seems representative of the city itself.
Another really noticeable thing about Turkey was the powerful nationalism in the country. There were flags virtually everwhere – giant banners hanging from buildings, little ones hanging from windows, you name it. And pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, were omnipresent. I asked people why all the large banner flags are out and they either told me they are always there or there were more than normal because a minor holiday called 'childrens day'. To be honest it started to feel a little creepy and Stalinesque. It certainly felt weird coming from Europe, where any overly zealous display of the flag is often regarded with suspicion – with the notable exception of France. Seeing so many flags and such ardent nationalism did make me wonder whether such an attitude is compatible with a federal Europe.
If Turkey joined the EU today it would be the second-largest member state after Germany. Of course it won't join today, the earliest it could possibly join is in ten years. By that point, with Turkey's high population growth rate, Turkey will be far bigger than Germany. That would mean that Turkey, a country only debatably part of 'Europe' in the first place and culturally very different from the rest of the continent, would be the largest member state in the union. That means it would have the highest number of MEPs in the parliament and the highest weighted vote in the council. The position Germany has today, as the most powerful member state in terms of voting rights, would be taken up by Turkey. Is this really an EU anyone can imagine?
The fact is that a federal EU, a political union, could never work under such an arrangement. And the pro-accession camp knows this. The reason the UK is such an ardent cheerleader for Turkish accession is because they don't want a federal EU, they want the EU to be just a free trade zone more like NAFTA in North America. Essentially it comes down to two different visions for Europe. When the United States tells the EU that they should let Turkey join, federalist countries like France and Germany see that as akin to Europe telling the US they should admit Mexico as the 51st state. But the British hear this entreaty entirely differently. They see it as akin to Europe asking the US to join in a free-trade pact with Mexico, which they did in the 1990's through NAFTA.
The truth is a political, federal EU would be impossible with Turkey has the largest member. It would be too large to be politically manageable, its borders would be too insecure to have a common travel area, and its foreign policy outlook would be impossible to coordinate (as if it wasn't difficult enough aready).
Of course this is the opinion of the situation I held before travelling to Turkey, and the visit didn't change that. It's a fantastic country and it has a bright future ahead of it, but that future should not and will not be as part of the EU. On my flight home, I was intrigued to see Turkish Airlines had put some kind of pro-accession pamphlet in all the seatbacks on the flights to Brussels. It was in Turkish so I couldn't read it, but the jist seemed to be presenting all of the benefits EU membership could bring to Turkey. It seemed strange because such a pamphlet is really preaching to the choir. The benefits EU membership would bring to Turkey are fairly obvious. The case that's never been made is what benefits the accession could bring to the EU – other than increasing the size of the common market as the British are always stressing. Such an arrangement could be done through a free trade agreement with Turkey (they're already in a joint customs union with the EU anyway) and does not require membership.
So, it was an enriching and fascinating trip, and I think I've come to understand Turkey a bit better now. Now I'm off on a very different sort of voyage, hopping on a train to London for the royal wedding tomorrow. That should be interesting as well!