The EU's Culture War With Turkey

Turkish forces have once-again assaulted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in retaliation for a recent attack that killed 24 Turkish soldiers and left more than 100 wounded. The renewed military operations represent the first real Turkish offensive against Kurdish rebels since 2005, when Turkey and the European Union began negotiating Turkey’s accession to the EU Such a conflict has undoubtedly raised eyebrows across Europe, whose leaders would like to see their populous Muslim neighbor kowtow to European demands, but never be fully included.

The European Union leadership recognizes the military, economic, and diplomatic benefits of an integrated Turkey, but detests what it views as cultural and demographic drawbacks. European policy makers would ideally like to keep Turkey on the upward path towards EU incorporation without ever reaching the summit. If they succeed, they will coax Turkey into making colossal concessions, all the while continuing to move the goalposts of acceptance.

If Turkey’s leaders and PKK fighters came together and signed a historic peace accords, European leadership would only see this as the first of an infinite number of steps. Next, Turkey would need to accept a Greek-run Cyprus. When the EU admitted Greek Cyprus, it must have known full well that to do so required a quick political resolution to the divisional issues plaguing the island. Whatever resolution found would demand that the Turkish Republic relinquish control over its half of the island. Turkey, however, views the island’s Turkish population to be within its jurisdiction, and barring overwhelming military pressure, will not be abandoning its people anytime soon. It is hard to determine which obstacle seems more unlikely to be overcome, the Kurdish dilemma or the Cyprus dilemma, but as it stands today, neither seems possible.

Let us pretend, however, that both those hurdles were leapt in the coming months; other issues would soon arise. Europeans have been hesitant to open their borders to further Turkish immigration. They often feel there are cultural incompatibilities that cannot be overlooked. Germans have long-feared the greater spread of Turkish identity and Islam in their country, which would inevitably accompany Turkish admittance, even if the Turkish brand is incredibly moderate and open.

European leaders have also been nervously wringing their hands over the recent change in attitude in Istanbul toward Israel. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems intent on shoring up his domestic right flank, as well as establishing himself as a friend to the transnational Arab Spring movement. These issues of identity will not go away anytime soon and will take generations to overcome. EU leadership has to be aware of this and will use these concerns to keep Turkey out but offer economic and political incentives to keep Turkey wanting in.

Unfortunately for Turkish leaders with eyes towards the West, though, a revived war with the PKK will only provoke further questions about Turkey’s human rights record within its immediate region. Even without the conflict, though, European leaders would continue to put in place greater and greater hurdles for Turkish accession, rendering the objective unattainable. It appears the previously termed "Sick Man of Europe” is now the Sisyphus of Europe.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Daniel Bender

Daniel received his BA in International Affairs from the George Washington University in 2009. He has traveled extensively throughout India, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey and his academic and writing interests include Middle Eastern politics, geography, philosophy, and history.

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