Turkey’s EU Membership And Perceptions – OpEd


By Yusuf Ibrahim Gamawa

Turkey is generally seen to be a Muslim country mainly as a result of its history. The history of a nation and its destiny always move hand in hand, though dynamic changes could always occur. That the Ottoman Empire had its roots in Turkish soil, makes it difficult for modern Turkey to separate itself from Ottoman culture, religion and society in the eyes of the world. The Turks can never separate themselves from the Islamic empire that the Ottoman was, nor deny that an Islamic empire once flourished on Turkish soil. It is a past that is still alive, and which kept hunting the advances that the modern republic of Turkey has constantly been making to become a member of the European Union amongst many other reasons. To many people, it was incomprehensible that Turkey could aspire to become a member of the EU, owing mainly to its Ottoman past. Though sometimes this point is not clearly made but one can understand the rationale behind such thoughts. This thinking helped create a perception which is sometimes difficult to dismiss even among Turks themselves, and also helped influence the thinking amongst many people and nations regarding Turkey’s EU membership bid. Despite favored in terms of its interaction and location to Europe, to many it is unimaginable that Turkey should be counted as part of Europe or belonging to the EU. This more than anything else echoes each time the issue of Turkey’s membership in the EU is mentioned, it remained unsettled in the minds of many.

The Arab media from the early times remained critical of Turkey’s effort to be an EU member, this is mainly due to the fact that many people including Arabs did not properly understand the concept of the European Union, and as such Turkey’s 1987 application for membership had a bombshell effect on the Arab world. To many Arabs and Muslims, it was impossible for Turkey to be in the EU, seeing the EU membership as amounting to accepting Christianity, and or betrayal of the Islamic world. And there is no doubt that this perception exists with regards to Turkey’s EU membership, and may have contributed in a way to many of the fears of Turkey being in the EU, despite the fact that religion isn’t part of the conditions for membership. The membership application of Turkey seemed to have raised the issue of identity in the debate for accession, though not openly. It is mainly the complex history of Turkey that is making its candidature controversial though not impossible, and has generated reactions from every part of the world, from leaders of nations in Africa, the Middle East to Europe, which tended to preserve the status quo, owing mainly to reactions from Middle East. Reactions continued to come from scholars and even from ordinary people across the globe, with different opinions mainly negative regarding the issue. While many disagreed with Turkey’s bid, yet others supported the bid of Turkey, and another group remained indifferent, but yet followed the development the membership bid with keen interest, contemplating its reality or not.

However, no matter the controversy the membership bid may have provoked, as well as the reactions it generated, the Turks have indicated their interest to be part of the EU long before now, and have taken concrete steps which demonstrated their commitment to actualizing their long term ambition of becoming members of the EU. And though there is significant change in perception over the years regarding the issue, and many people and nations came to understand what membership of the EU actually means to member nations. In 2005 when Turkey renewed its bid, the negative reactions could not be compared with that of 1987, and today there is a lot of improvement in the way many nations and people both within and outside Europe regarding Turkey’s EU membership and many seemed to have come to terms with Turkey’s ambition in this globalized world. And what is important at this critical stage now is to look at how far Turkey has progressed on the march towards its ambition over many years and why it has not yet become a member, despite several years of relationship with Europe, and at present despite many years of negotiation with the European Union. Many have wondered why Turkey wants to join the EU, and on the other many wonder why it is still not a member. The two questions cannot be dismissed easily, because just as many argue that the Turks haven’t a place in Europe, others argue that the Turks have a prominent role and not just a place in the EU. While many see Turkey as having much to offer to the EU, others see nothing at all. The US president Barrack Obama was quoted by Yasser Abu Hilale of Jordan’s Al-Gad newspaper in April 2009 as saying “ Turkey must be part of the EU and that Turkey’s geo-strategic importance, its culture and its influential foreign policy will enrich Europe show his greatness”.

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