Turkey is not going to join the European Union. Bald or candid statements are usually unwise, or “impolitic,” which is why politicians tend to avoid them, knowing that they may be falsified by events. But some can be made with absolute confidence, and here is one of them.
This question has returned to the news with the recent Turkish visit by David Cameron, during which he said that Turkey should join the E.U. as soon as possible. Whatever my new prime minister may say, it has been clear to me ever since I took any interest in the question that Turkey was not going to join the E.U. The word is “not” rather than “never.”
Who knows what will happen in the twenty-first or twenty-second centuries, if mankind survives? But Turkey will not be a member in my lifetime or, I am fairly sure, in my children’s. If that is so, it raises a further question. Why do so many people fail to recognize this truth? One only has to look at the sheer economic disparity between Western Europe and Turkey. If Turkey did join, per impossible, it would soon overtake Germany to be the most populous member state—and yet German per capita income is three times greater than Turkish. The difficulty is so obvious and insuperable that one wonders how the tragic misunderstanding came about. It’s a long story.
After the Turks first emerged out of central Asia to colonize Asia Minor, or Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire expanded with ferocious vigor through Araby—and then the Balkans. The high-water mark came with the siege of Vienna, which is still a vivid memory on both sides, although I doubt that the Turkish politician Mehmet Dulger is right when he explains Austrian misgivings by saying that they behave “as if it’s 1683 and the Muslim Turks want to seize Vienna.”
Having waxed, this remarkable empire waned, its sanguinary later phase illustrating a line of Evelyn Waugh’s that Pat Moynihan used to quote: “The creation of empires are often occasions of woe; their dissolution, always.” After the Great War, the modern Turkish state was born out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire: the creation of Kemal Ataturk and “Kemalism.” Although Ataturk used the language of modernity and secularism, and claimed to embrace all different faiths and ethnic groups, Kemalism was always, at heart, Turkish-ethnic in inspiration, and with deeper and more persistent Islamic roots than many recognized.
Since then European disdain has hardened. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are openly skeptical about Turkish membership, and when Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, trumpets the Turkish cause, it only confirms Continental suspicions that London is acting on behalf of Washington.
Whether cause or effect is hard to say, but political Islam has revived in Turkey. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the E.U. must either “show political maturity and become a global power, or it will end up a Christian club,” but then he himself leads what is an Islamic (if not “Islamist”) party, and when he was mayor of Istanbul he banned alcohol. That’s no way to endear Turkey to Europeans. Drinking wine and beer isn’t precisely a mark of a Christian club, but it’s our culture, as they say.
Finally there has been a severe falling-out between Turkey and Israel, although anyone who thought that the former pragmatic understanding was based on sentiment rather than calculation needs some basic lessons in Machtpolitik. That connection was always a case of “my enemy’s enemy...” and events may prove what one Israeli used to say, “In these parts, my enemy’s enemy is still my enemy.”
It’s easy to sympathize with those highly civilized, secular and westernized Turks who think they have been tricked and ill-used by Europe, and that Turkey is being driven by European rejection eastward towards radical Islam and the failure of all that Kemal worked for. But then again, the latest line heard from advocates of membership, that Turkey must be admitted in order to provide a bridge between West and East and encourage moderate Muslims, is most unconvincing.
Such encouragement might be desirable, but when did it become the object of that remarkable project that began with the Treaty of Rome in 1957?
No, what’s needed now, on both sides, is courtesy and good will, but also honesty. That begins with the recognition that Turkey is not going to join the European Union.