Leading Article: The long shadow of Hassan

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a country bordering on the European Union which was founded as a modern, secular, democratic and above all European state. It saw its destiny so much as part of our continent that it abandoned its ancient script and now uses our Roman alphabet. And yet Turkey will not be let into the club. Enlargement of the European Union is one of the priorities of Britain's presidency, but Turkey is neither among the five next joiners, nor among the five next-but-ones, all of whose representatives assembled for talks in London yesterday.

So why is Turkey different from Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania? The first, and very important, answer is human rights. Despite its aspirations, and despite the very recent democratic credentials of the convoy of countries which has jumped the queue ahead of it, Turkey's political system still fails to qualify. Istanbul's politicians are not fully insulated from the military and there have been abuses of human rights, especially those of ethnic minorities such as the Kurds.

But this is not the whole story, and it is worth pursuing further the reluctance to admit Turkey even into the EU's waiting room. For many, "not yet" is code for "never", and the issue of human rights usefully postpones facing up to other reasons. Even if Turkey's democracy were above reproach, it would be argued that Turkey is "not in Europe" or that it does not share our "common culture". But ever since the goddess Europa fled from Phoenicia to Greece, the boundaries of Europe have been fluctuating and ambiguous and its cultural identity likewise.

What, then, is the real difference? It is that Turkey is a Muslim country. Ever since the giant Hassan stormed the wall of Constantinople at the head of a wave of Janissaries in 1453, ending a thousand years of the Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium, his shadow has fallen across the continent. Up to the walls of Vienna and back, modern Europe's identity was forged in opposition to Turkish Islam. The spectre of the heathen at the gate even featured in British domestic politics as recently as Gladstone's Midlothian campaign, fought on the demand that the Ottomans be ejected from Europe "bag and baggage".

So is the enlarged European Union simply a neo-Christendom, an ethnic and cultural entity based on Christianity and Caucasian genes? (Never mind that the Caucasus mountains which gave their name to a racial type are to the north and east of Turkey.) It cannot be, and it is as well to spell out why not. John Laughland's book The Tainted Source last year argued that the ideology underlying the European Union is corrupted by German supremacism in a pan-European guise. He claimed that Paul-Henri Spaak, a Belgian founding father of the European Community, was a collaborationist and former intellectual admirer of Hitler, and that Jacques Delors was a disciple of a crypto-Nazi in the 1930s.

This is nonsense, given the EU's high and democratic principles. But it should force us to ask: is there such a thing as a European identity, and does the EU exist to give expression to it? Because there is a radical open-endedness about the Union which is unsettling. There is the internal open-endedness of the integration process, enshrined in the phrase "ever- closer union" in the Treaty of Rome. It was precisely to counter this endless ambition that moderate Euro-sceptics, including our present Foreign Secretary, have championed the cause of an ever-wider union. This is the external open-endedness which yesterday saw the future eastern boundary of the Union pushed to the Black Sea and the steppes. But, as a permanent condition of the EU, this process of expansion is just as disorienting as a process of permanent unification. Why stop at the Urals or the Bosphorus?

Well, it has to stop somewhere, or the EU would simply be a free-trade and single-currency zone for advanced, liberal and democratic countries, regardless of cultural identity or geographical location. But Europe, as the region bordering on the Mediterranean, has a much longer history than the land-mass of north and west Europe. It is a history divided by religion, but it is a division (like the division of Europe by communism) which the EU could overcome.

That is why we should wrestle with the shadow of Hassan. Bosnian Muslims certainly feel strongly that Europe's Christian heritage ensured that they were left to their fate, and there is much truth in that. Bosnia could have been a model for a secular, tolerant and liberal state in which Christians and Muslims lived together. If Turkey could follow that model, then it should certainly be a candidate for European Union membership.

Trying to tie part of the Islamic world to western liberal democracy is not a strategy that has worked with Egypt, the greatest recipient of American aid after Israel. But the chances of success are much greater with Turkey, and the prize is great. Perhaps it will have to wait until Islamic agnosticism emerges as a dominant religion of Turkey, as Christian doubt has elsewhere, but it is important to offer the Turks a genuine chance to prove their liberal democratic credentials.