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Turkey in Europe : A contradiction in terms


Standpoint of Armenian Diaspora


Turkey in Europe : A contradiction in terms

Laurent Leylekian


Laurent Leylekian

Laurent Leylekian was journalist and editor in chief of France-Arménie, a monthly newspaper of the French-Armenian community up to 2010. He was also the executive director of the European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy, at Brussels (Belgium) from 2001 to 2010. In this framework, he partook to reinstating the Armenian cause within Turkey's negotiations for accession to the EU. He keeps on working for various projects of the civil society, in conjunction with his professional activities. 

For almost fifteen years now, Turkey has been a candidate to join the European Union – a length of time which, in itself, tells of failure. The membership never happened, but if ever it did, its meaning and significance would be very different from the way it was viewed in 1999, when Turkey was allowed to apply.

Before examining the fateful progress of the European project – and, for our part, of the place of the Armenian question within it – let us move directly to our conclusion: European Turkey will never be since it is an idea which, by essence, contains its own contradiction: indeed, Turkey was built on the negation of Europe and its membership could only mean the disappearance of one or the other term of the equation. As it is, Turkey has not essentially changed since 1915 and, unless it does, its acceptance within the European Union would mean quite simply that Europe has ceased to exist as a political project.

Europe, a cultural sense of belonging
On historical and geographical grounds, the notion of Europe is fiercely debated. “A small cape of Asia,” in the famous phrase of French poet Paul Valéry, its Eastern borders are unclear. If, like General De Gaulle, most people agree to set the limit along the Ural Mountains, some would rather see it end at River Volga. In the South-East, it is generally thought that Europe is bordered by the Caucasus, but many include the Armenians and Georgians among Europeans. To the South, The Balkans, Greece and even Istanbul are seen as European cities, but fifty years ago, the East used to start beyond Vienna.

In fact, there is a strong intellectual tradition which makes Europe a continent of the Mind. It was a place, they say, where several “miracles” happened, unprecedented in human history: at the very least, Greek philosophy and the theology of free will called Christianity, and additionally, the Renaissance or the Reform and/or the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the politically correlated French Revolution.

From that history, the Turks were largely absent, although it isn’t a sufficient reason to exclude them from the European family. After all, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment mostly concerned the Western part of our continent, and hardly spread to the more Northern areas or the Eastern part of the Danube; nevertheless, we do consider the Serbs and Finns as Europeans. And although the split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy has long been a structuring divide in the history of the continent, we do not see it as a critical distinction to define European-ness today. (Indeed if it were the case, Armenians would only be reluctant Europeans.) Finally, although Europe itself has often identified itself to fighting Christianity in the face of invasive attempts by Islam – one of the first occurrences of the word “Europe” bearing that political meaning is attested at the battle of Poitiers (732) – it cannot be said to be entirely meaningful nowadays in our continent rife with atheism and also including strong Muslim minorities, or even in countries largely moulded by Islam, such as Albania an Bosnia.

The Turcoman peoples who arrived in Asia Minor at the turn of the first millennium could very well have integrated themselves within the European nations, as did the Magyars or the Bulgarians who had preceded them a little earlier in the long timeline of history. All the more so that those called today “Turks” descend from 700,000 Turcomans who came from Central Asia and mingled with the 5 or so million people already living in Asia Minor, among whom the slightly European Armenians and many Greeks. How did Turks not Europeanize at the time, and instead deeply orientalised the peoples whom they assimilated?

Europe, a political identity

The answer to this question would require a whole book in itself. To put it maybe too bluntly, one can say that Turkey is not European because its political rules have always refused an ethics that would have led – even outside the political field – to the emergence of autonomous thinking. In the same way it ruled landowning, the Padishah used to exert its absolute power over the souls. What the sultans never wanted was the emergence of that formal reason which refuses to be indentured to political or religious dogma and is the cornerstone of the Western mind.

Granted, there were indeed two attempts to turn Turkey into a European state by reforming its social and political ways. But the first one failed and the second one became warped. The Tanzimat wrecked against the prevailing forces in the Ottoman social body, who refused in bulk both the structural reforms of the Empire and the granting of equal rights to its non-Muslim subjects. Turkey has never known, if not the letter, at least the spirit of such edicts of tolerance as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France or the Crémieux Decree in French North Africa.

The second attempt – which I would call warped – was that of the Young Turks and their heirs, the Kemalists. The Young Turks were forerunners of political action that Fascists and Bolsheviks would take up again: basically, they adopted the tools of European modernity while rejecting the political philosophy that underpinned them – i.e. the philosophy of progress, whether in a free-market or a social-democrat spirit. It is no coincidence if just before World War I, the Young Turks liquidated the last Muslim Liberals of the Empire, such as Mahmud Shevket. As for the Armenian Genocide as such, and the subsequent expulsion of the Greeks, it literally embodied the murder of the European part of the Empire – annihilating those who had brought in not only Western innovative techniques but also the “European soul” through novel social practices such as sports, drama and, of course, the famous critical reasoning.

By murdering the Armenians, Turkey killed what was most European within itself, exactly as the Nazis exclude themselves from European civilization by murdering the Jews. However, as with Germany, there was nothing final there for Turkey. But the advent of Kemalism – i.e. the deliberate perpetuation of the political project of the Young Turks – validated that choice. By promoting criminals of the previous regime, by forcefully pursuing its destructive work against the peoples or Asia Minor, and implementing a state-mongered revisionism that obliterates the various components of its past and crime, the Turkish State clearly expresses its adamant rejection of Europe and its values.

We no longer unite people, but coalesce states

No politician with a true European spirit could ever have imagined it possible to grant candidate status to the European Union to such a country as Turkey – even under geopolitical pressure from inside or from across the Atlantic. It is all the more significant therefore that this should have been allowed only after the last truly European Commission represented by Jacques Delors’s third mandate (regardless of what Delors now says about Turkey’s candidacy): it is around the same period that the political idea of Europe gave way to a soulless institutional mechanism.

The reasons for this loss of meaning are many and, among them, the generational factor does not come last. To refer again to the example of the Commission’s last presidents, Delors was 15 in 1940, and Barroso was 13 in 1968. The exacting political responsibility of a cultured political staff marked by two war cataclysms was succeeded by the libertarian and amnesiac excesses of their heirs. The collusion between the Liberal illusion prevailing in the West and the post-Communist disillusion in the East was probably one of the greatest European misunderstandings of the last 25 years. Because although the Great Widening of 2004 was historically necessary, its rushed implementation was conducted at the deliberate expense of any vision. Indeed, rubbing out geographical borders in space proceeds from the same reasoning as rubbing out historical memory in time – i.e. the refusal of any assertion of identity. In the same stride, French and Dutch citizens, who were casually asked their opinion, refused both the liberal contents and the limitless container of a disembodied Europe which, in breach of Monnet’s design, no longer aims at uniting people but at coalescing states.

There is no doubt that the Turkish question played a crucial part in those lost referenda of 2005, as several opinion polls also consistently showed. Since then, while Europe is sinking deeper into a crisis whose economic ills are only the froth over much deeper problems, the question of Turkey, or of the Armenian Genocide – which are one and the same – play a very specific role of marking the advances and setbacks of the European idea. Those brandishing the prerequisite of a recognition of the genocide are calling on a certain idea of Europe, the continent of the Mind; while those who view Turkey through the flattering prism of technical criteria and statistical data are defending the Global Europe, the Europe of the Vienna Treaty, where Turkey can indeed legitimately play its game according to its interests. These two visions coexist in the left as well as the right wing, as well as the demand for recognition of the Genocide and the slightly shamefaced attempts to obliterate it.

However, one can unfortunately fear that the heirs to Romain Rolland, Stefan Zweig, Reiner Maria Rilke, Ferdinand Pessoa or Paul Valéry have temporarily lost the fight and that the Europe of the Mind, essentially out of reach of the Turkish State, has vanished. What seems to be brewing in the short run is a Europe of nationalisms reminding us of what it already spawned – a Europe which was no more at odds with the Ankara regime than Moscow’s or Minsk’s, or with those European societies where movements such as the Croix de Feu, the Stahlhelm, the Squadrists or the Grey Wolves prospered. In a way, that sort of Europe has already joined Turkey.