Turkey and the EU: Poles apart?

Like most numbers of the Spectator, the festive, XL-sized holiday edition is marred by the presence of Mark Steyn. But don’t let that put you off, there’s some good stuff there as well. And one of the better bits is an essay by Prof. Norman Stone on Turkey (Potential EU Accession of) (reg. req.).

For the most part Stone paints a picture of the old Ottoman Empire as something much less uniformly Islamic than some think. You should already be aware, of course, that what would later (in truncated form) become Turkey was a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious state, but if you weren’t, Stone gives you a quick background. (By the time it fell apart, the Ottoman Empire had become the ‘Sick Man of Europe’; but for centuries it was a success.) What you might not have known, though, was that the orthodox Christians of the Ottoman realms were only too happy to be part of a nominally Islamic polity. The orthodox patriarchs and the Muslim sultans saw in the latinate West a common foe. Indeed my own suspicion is that the Greeks felt a keener enmity than the Turks. The sultan, understandably, might well have seen the theological differences between orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as obscure and uninteresting (how many of us in the post-Christian lands of the west are aware of, let alone take much interest in, the distinctions between the theravada and mahayana strains of Buddhism?) To the bishops of the orthodox world, though, the sultan served (whether he cared about this or not) as a bulwark against the centralising domination of their brother-bishop at Rome.

But what set Stone off was a recent article in Die Zeit by Prof. Hans-Ulrich Wehler. The title of Wehler’s article, which formed part of the contra side in a Zeit-sponsored debate on Turkish accession to the EU, has some unfortunate historical echoes: “Das T?rkenproblem“.

Wehler is adamant that Turkey must never, ever be allowed to join the EU. It’s a poor and backward land, he argues. Its political culture is sinister. And, oh yes, it’s Muslim. As Wehler writes:

Das Land besitzt keine liberalisierte Marktwirtschaft, missachtet eklatant die Menschenrechte, verfolgt die kurdische Minderheit, vor allem aber ist es als muslimischer Staat durch eine tiefe Kulturgrenze von Europa getrennt.
[The country has no liberal market economy. It fails spectacularly to honour human rights. It persecutes its Kurdish minority. But above all, as a Muslim state it is separated from Europe by a deep cultural chasm.]

Well, I don’t know. Some people might find it a bit rich to hear criticism out of Germany of the insufficiencies of another country’s ‘liberal market economy’, but then I suppose everything is relative. In any event, on the issues of the economy, human rights and the Kurds, Turkey has been getting better. I will happily concede to Prof. Wehler that the country has, improvements in recent years notwithstanding, not yet got to where it needs to be. But that is an argument against Turkey acceding now; and nobody proposes that it do so. What is proposed is that Turkey be considered for admission if and when it attains EU standards. These are not good arguments against Turkey acceding ever, unless one adopt an essentialist view that Turkey’s national ethos means it must necessarily go on forever stagnating economically, ignoring human rights and persecuting Kurds (and carefully close one’s eyes to any evidence that would go against that view).

I suspect, though, that it’s the fourth point that really informs Prof. Wehler’s animus. The Turks are Muslims, and we Europeans are Christians. Well, are we, though? As it happens, I am, so perhaps I am not good evidence for my own argument. But many, many Europeans are no Christians at all. (A recent YouGov poll reports that only 44% of Britons believe in God, whether of a Christian or any other variety.) Many more are but nominal Christians. The days of ‘Christendom’ are long gone (and thank God for that).

If the EU were to espouse a specifically Christian identity, there’d be good argument that a predominantly Muslim state would not fit it. But the EU does no such thing (and if it tried to do, I and many others would oppose it). What we can say is that the EU espouses certain broad cultural, political and philosophical values, many of which may have their roots in, inter alia, the Christian tradition. (Though honesty bids me observe that, over the centuries, many representatives of that tradition fought tooth and nail against the putting into practice of those values.) What Europe does stand for, I should hope, is the liberty and dignity of the individual; the inviolability of human rights; the defeat of divisive tribalisms. It can, and does, fail to uphold those ideals; but those remain nonetheless the ideals for which it should stand. And there is room in that tent for those of more than one religious tradition, and for those of no religion at all.

Does Islam strike you as militant, intolerant, misogynistic, illiberal? It strikes me that way too. (I fully recognise that there are many thoughtful Islamic scholars who argue plausibly that it is none of these things, and for all I know their Islamic theology is sounder than that of the Islamists. Not being versed in Islamic theology, I can judge only by the behaviour of a large number of practicing Muslims.) The thing is, though, one can say the very same, with at least equal justice, about Christianity. Modern military technology may enable Islamist terrorists to attain impressive kill rates, but for sheer murderous zeal it would be hard to top the armies of Christendom (whether they were attacking non-Christians or fellow-Christians who differed on some obscure point of doctrine.) A society in which Sharia is applied correctly is pretty intolerant; but it is far more tolerant of Christians than Christian socety was of Muslims (not to mention Jews). As for the treatment of women and the issue of individual liberties generally, resistance against what almost everybody today regards as right overlaps strongly with resistance by European Christian triumphalists against the emergence of a secular society.

Ah well, you say, but surely all that is in the past. Yes, and that’s my point. (And I might add that it’s not all in the past, and that the ‘past’ is in many cases pretty recent; but that’s another matter.) European society today is something that many institutional Christian leaders (whether Martin Luther, John Calvin or pretty much any pope you’d care to name) could only regard with horror: a place where religion has been largely consigned to the private sphere. Yes, yes, I know. Germany’s state schools offer religious instruction (and in most of its states, this offer is more or less compulsory.) The British monarch is notionally supreme governor of a particular Christian denomination of one of the four countries that make up her kingdom. Greece continues to use its national church as a badge of political identity. I could go on. The important thing is not that most parts of Europe have failed to achieve a strict formal separation of church and state, as the United States have done (and as I would like the nations of the EU to do). The point is that nowhere in Europe will you find the doctrines of a denomination serving as the underpinning of the state. Some politicians argue for laws restricting abortion, or against laws providing for the equal treatment of homosexuals. But you will not usually find them arguing that the law must be such-and-such because the bible says it must. (Whether in this instance the United States might serve as an illustration of the distinction between formal and substantial separation of church and state, it would be invidious to speculate.)

The secularisation of society may put religion in its place, as it were, but it does not ban it. Perhaps you believe that God forbids divorce, or that your religious ideals bid you to subject yourself to your husband’s will, bear him many children and stay at home to care for them. Well then, you should decline to divorce; you should decline to enter the labour market. And I will never mock you for doing so. Indeed, I would go some distance to ensure that you can freely exercise your choice, even if it would not be my choice. But I will not go the distance of demanding that your personal beliefs be written into law, and if that is what you demand I will oppose you.

We may legitimately insist that an historically Muslim state wishing to be part of the EU uphold the ideal of a secular, liberal pluralism. (After all, this is no more than we insist of historically Christian states wishing to be part of the EU.) But to assert that an historically Muslim state is, ipso facto, unfit for EU membership is to do one of two things. Either one is insisting that society be theocratised, the theology in question being Christian. Or else one is using ‘Christian’ as a sort of ethnic label. The former is bad. The latter is worse, as much from a religious as a secular perspective.

Prof. Stone observes that there is an irony in Wehler’s position that the Turks are essentially non-integratable. Stone refers to a scholarly study on Polish immigration to Germany’s Ruhr valley. Something over a century ago, Poles began coming in huge numbers from Prussia’s Polish and Masurian territories to work in the Ruhr’s coal mines. (According to a Berliner Zeitung article, the Prussian census recorded 16 Poles in the Rhineland and Westphalia provinces in 1861; just before the first World War, there were 460,000.) And they did not integrate well, at least not at first. Things are different today, of course. Germany has untold citizens bearing Slavic surnames; they view themselves, correctly, as Germans. (Who could be more authentically German than the television detective Schimanski?)

Now you might say, come now, Poles are pretty easily assimilable into German society. After all, bar the language difference (and certain unpleasant events in the fourth and fifth decades of the previous century), Germans and Poles share broadly similar cultures. But that’s not the way people (especially, people in Germany) saw things at the time. Poles, they said, could simply never fit in to German society. They were too different. And their essential difference inhered not least in their religion, for the Poles were Roman Catholics almost to a man whilst Germany was a protestant-dominated land. (In fact, Germany is pretty nearly evenly divided between the two Christian camps. There were more protestants than catholics when the Poles began to arrive; but there were still a lot of catholic Germans even then. However, the denominational divide was then (and to a diluted extent still is) regional, the result of the cuius regio policy that ended Germany’s religious wars. It is questionable whether Bavaria and the Rhineland would be catholic today had a unified German state under Prussian domination emerged two centuries earlier than it did; and cuius regio notwithstanding, when the unified German state finally did arrive it launched an — ultimately unsuccessful — anti-catholic Kulturkampf.) Max Weber, as Stone notes, argued that one couldn’t expect catholics to develop a liberal market economy. They’re just too different. One expects Weber would be chagrined today to see catholic Bavaria (a backward, miserably poor place in his day) as Germany’s economic powerhouse.

The author of this study claimed that German society had failed to integrate its Poles. (Other European countries, e.g., Belgium and France, made a much better fist of it.) With the passing of generations, integration became inevitable. But it could have been achieved earlier, with less heartache, had Germany set about the project better. The irony is that the study’s author is one Hans-Ulrich Wehler. You won’t find the study online, but if you’re curious, it’s called “Die Polen im Ruhrgebiet bis 1918”, published in 1961 the Vierteljahrschrift f?r Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, vol. 48, pp. 203-35, and later collected in Moderne deutsche Sozialgeschichte, edited by Wehlers.

Whatever about the difficulties of integrating large numbers of culturally, linguistically and religiously starkly ‘different’ foreigners, the story of Polish migration to the Ruhr valley had a happy ending (not least if you’re a supporter of Schalke 04 with an interest in the club’s history). It is my hope that, one day, our descendants will look back with satisfaction on the successful integration of the Turks into the European Union. If they can do so, it will mean that Turkey travelled up the road to economic strength and liberal democracy. And it will also mean that the EU refused to travel down the path to ethnoreligious tribalism. That would be an EU the Turks would do well to keep out of. It’s an EU that we who are already on the inside would do well to prevent becoming a reality.

In the mean time, and though I hate to be tiresome on this point, Wehlers really ought to keep in mind that, if admitted, Turkey will not be the first EU member state that once despised the liberal market economy, failed spectacularly to honour human rights, persecuted its minorities and was separated from other European nations (at least, those it hadn’t conquered) by a deep cultural chasm. Indeed, Turkey would be far from the worst example of such countries, at least one of which was found fit for membership not very long after the persecutions etc. were stopped (and, unlike in Turkey’s case, stopped by outsiders).

60 thoughts on “Turkey and the EU: Poles apart?

  1. To see the problem of recognizing past wrongs, you could use the Vietnam war as an example.

    The US killed more than a million people there.
    Many would consider that a serious crime. Yet in the US it isn’t. Try calling the military that committed those killings (mostly reffered to as vietnam vets) criminals. Highly insulting, and unacceptable in the US. They fought with honour etc. Even saying that the US lost that war still upsets some US citizens.

    History is being written by the strongest party around. And Turkey should accept that the Armenian story is being rewritten, as Turkey will no longer be the power that determines the story when they are part of the EU.

    But the story needs to be rewritten in a way that does justice to the truth, the Armenians, and the Turks.

    If all it takes of the Turkish government is for them to say, “Yeah, we were wrong about that, now can we get our membership?”, it will be pretty meaningless.

  2. Hektor: …the UK currently occupies a large amount of Cyprus…

    Hektor: …no member of the EU currently occupies another EU country…

    You can’t have it both ways 🙂

    There seems to be one ingredient missing from this fascinating discussion: 80 million Turks; most of whom weren’t alive in 1975, let alone 1915. It is important to learn from history, but the issue at hand is the future not the past. Paraphrasing Mrs T., unless you believe that there is something intrinsicly evil passed on through generations, arguments about passed atrocities generate more heat than light.

  3. “The orthodox patriarchs and the Muslim sultans saw in the latinate West a common foe. Indeed my own suspicion is that the Greeks felt a keener enmity than the Turks”

    Well, that might be partly true but would apply only for highest echelons of the clergy who saw it as their chance to retain power and influence, as the church was the only form of government in many areas of the balkans, collecting taxes etc.
    The overwhelming majority of the greek populations only saw ottoman rule as damaging and they voted with their feet. The intellectual elite and upper classes immigrated to western europe, mainly Florence and other city states in Italy.

    A very interesting book on what led up to this state of affairs is

    Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums
    by Karlheinz Deschner

  4. Curtis:

    But I will also say this, the Turks, I believe will come to a reasonable place on this issue much quicker if opponents merely insist on open and honest discussion and not that they show a certain amount of contrition, or use the word ?genocide.?

    This is fair. The critical issue, IMO, is that Turkish partisans stop reacting hysterically whenever the word “genocide” is used in connection with the Armenians, by anyone. That’s incredibly offputting and rather disturbing.

  5. Fair enough about the UK. The problem is that there are UK bases on Cyprus, ostensibly for the defense of Cyprus, but the British did absolutely nothing when the Turks invaded. So the British haven’t kept up their part of the bargain, and should go, but it isn’t the same thing as occupation – so I withdraw the statement about the UK.

  6. “This is fair. The critical issue, IMO, is that Turkish partisans stop reacting hysterically whenever the word “genocide” is used in connection with the Armenians, by anyone. That’s incredibly offputting and rather disturbing.”

    Very true. Turkish touchiness on this subject is bizarre, and only serves to make them look guilty of worse things that even the Armenians accuse them of.

  7. Especially compared with the way the European powers react to how they behaved in their former colonies.

  8. Dennis,

    you win a prize for being the first person I have ever encountered, on usenet or in a blog, to cite Deschner. He was a favourite of mine in my atheist years. He’s still a favourite.

    But, whatever you might (correctly) say about intellectual elites fleeing west as the Turks took Constantinople, they were just that: an elite. (And thank heaven they did flee; the flea-bitten west would have had far less to work with had they not done.) Still, as things settled down, the bulk of the orthodox in what became the Ottoman realms found they could be quite strong about giving tribute to a Muslim master, so long as this allowed them to carry on undisturbed, and free from a master at Rome.

  9. As a Muslim I find it somewhat depressing that the greatest hope for Muslims’ rights to practice their religion (fully) in their own country appears to come from integration with the European Union. But these people who talk about Turkey being incompatible with the EU because of Turkey’s mainly Muslim population ignore another big issue – the threat from the Turkish military. What will happen if the Turkish military (with its tradition of treachery – its last coup was in the 1970s and it was instrumental in getting rid of Erbakan) decides to stage another coup? Does the EU have mechanisms for what to do when a member state’s democratic institutions are kicked aside?

  10. Yusuf, the short answer is no, though the constitution may change things. The EU didn’t even deal well with the incorporation of Haider’s far, far-right party into the Austrian government in the late 1990s. Lots of harrumphing, something like a boycott, and then an embarrassing climbdown.

    On the other hand, by the time a country has absorbed enough of the acquis to actually become a member, the chances of heavy-handed military intervention in domestic politics are probably quite small. Spanish history is instructive.