Then came the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, the military coup of 1980 and the rise in Turkish-Kurdish violence throughout the 1980s. The reality of Turkey’s status as a “bridge nation” between Europe and Asia, replete with all of the problems associated with the melding of two historically disparate and incompatible cultures, was exposed, together with Europe’s unwillingness to recognize the uniqueness of Turkey’s situation. Negotiations between Europe and Turkey over customs union came to a halt and were revived only in 1986. In 1987 Turkey applied for full EEC membership, an application which was endorsed by the European Council in terms of eligibility but not necessarily viability. In 1995 Turkey seemed to make progress in its quest to become a formal member of the Western bloc when customs union was finally ratified, but two years later Turkey’s hopes were shattered when the European Union declined to offer candidate status. Under pressure from the United States, this decision was reversed in 1999, and since that time there has been hesitant progress toward the dream of European Union membership for Turkey.
Turkey has made huge progress in terms of financial and legal reform. Its parliament has passed sweeping legislation which more closely aligns it with the European Union in terms of legal structure and content. But the reality is that historical, ethnic and cultural prejudices within Europe, combined with Turkey’s “bridge nation” status between East and West, make union with Europe a near impossibility. One can see just how complex this situation is in how Turkey deals with issues along its borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Although a full-fledged member of NATO, Turkey excludes the operations of its forces in its eastern provinces from NATO command, control and oversight. Turkey is, in reality, two nations within a nation. One, looking toward the west, seeks union with Europe. The other, looking toward the east, seeks stability in a region clouded by history, ethnic diversity and religious fanaticism. Turkey’s status as a Muslim nation further complicates a union with Europe. While the United States and some European nations, Britain in particular, support European Union status for Turkey on the grounds that this would provide a foundation of stable relations between the West and the Muslim world, many European nations, especially France, the Netherlands and Germany, oppose Turkey’s membership on the basis that Turkey and Europe are incompatible entities not given to comprehensive political, cultural and economic union.
At least the French are honest in their approach. Europe, while labeling the Kurdish PKK as a terrorist group, is indifferent to the reality of PKK terrorism from the perspective of Turkey. While remaining mute on its own complicity in controversial anti-terrorism practices of the United States (rendition, illegal confinement and torture) carried out on European soil and with the assistance and permission of many European governments, the EU continues to condemn Turkey for human rights violations, limitations on free speech, and other political problems arising from its decades-long struggle against PKK terrorism. While every effort should be made to encourage Turkish conformity with the legal and moral practices set forth under international law, the hypocrisy of the European position is evident, especially to the people of Turkey, who have become jaded in recent years to the notion of union with Europe. While some 66 percent of the Turkish population supported entry into the European Union a decade ago, today the number hovers around 40 percent. This trend, if it holds, will make Turkish membership in Europe all but impossible.
The question, therefore, is what should be done about Turkey and the West? There is no doubt that both the West (Europe and the United States) are best served by maintaining the closest possible ties with Turkey. The problem is, does such a close relationship likewise benefit Turkey? At a time when the United States Congress foolishly debates whether to apply the label of “genocide” to events (i.e., the Armenian tragedy of 1915) nearly a century past, and Europe blindly repeats the mistakes of recent history (i.e., its complicit support for the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003) by rubber-stamping U.S. policy objectives vis-à-vis Iran, it can come as no surprise that Turkey finds itself feeling left out of the West at a time when events in the East consume its political and economic energy. The Turkish government’s recent call for the creation of a “Turkic Union” is but the most recent manifestation of a trend which has the Turkish sociopolitical-economic compass starting to swing away from Europe.
During the time of the Ottoman Empire, what is now known as Turkey was often referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” Today, it seems, many in Europe and the United States act as if this status still stands. But the fact is, Turkey today is neither sick nor European. It is a pro-West Muslim nation which not only physically bridges east and west but also serves as the conduit for social, economic and political intercourse. The key for the United States and Europe is not to keep trying to choose between forcing Turkey into becoming European and rejecting it for being too Asian, but rather to respect the progress Turkey has made in forging a Muslim nation with a secular government and democratic stability. Turkey today, as a bridge nation, holds the key for the peaceful resolution of many current crises (Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran in particular), and most potential future crises involving East-West conflict. Properly nurtured and managed, the West’s relationship with Turkey can be beneficial to all parties in the long term.
However, a bridge runs two ways, and if the West, in particular Europe, continues to approach its relationship with Turkey with the arrogance and indifference it displays today, and if the United States continues to pursue imperial policies in the Middle East which act to the detriment of Turkish interests, rest assured that this critical Western ally will drift away from Europe and firmly into the grasp of the East and radical Islamic fundamentalism. This would be a disaster for both Turkey and the West. At a time when the search for stability represents such an important part of the West’s foreign policy objectives, the lack of attention given to Turkey is astounding. Far from being the modern incarnation of Europe’s “sick man,” modern Turkey is healthy and vibrant, and does matter. We need to formulate and implement policies that reflect this reality before it is too late.