On Turkey and Europe

A friend recently complained about Russia hosting Eurovision because “Russia isn’t in Europe”, to which I felt the need to respond that it may not be entirely in Europe, but its population mostly is, and in any case the definition of Europe is both arbitrary and historically fluid. Strangely, this same friend did not object to the appearance of Turkey (let alone Israel…). But this got me thinking again about one of my favourite bugbears, and that’s the issue of Turkey and Europe.

The division of the known world into the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa dates back to the ancient Greeks. Initially, the boundaries were taken to be the Nile and Don rivers, but even in ancient times there were objectors who thought it better to use isthmuses – which helps somewhat in the case of Africa, but not so much for Europe. The currently-accepted line along the Ural and Caucasus mountains and the Bosporous has its basis neither in the sciences or the humanities, but on cartographical convenience and no little inertia. In truth, it is as easy to draw a firm line between Europe and Asia as it is to draw an accurate globe on flat paper.

The geologist can take two approaches: either Eurasia is one continent, being a single landmass with no narrow isthmus to divide it (indeed, one can make the case that Africa isn’t a separate continent either), or it is divided into at least six or seven continental plates. Unfortunately Europe is not one of these plates, as the Ural mountains are as geologically active as pocket lint. More interesting is the area of Anatolia and the Caucasus, where we can see the multiplicity of fault lines and minor plates:


(changed image due to link rot – source: http://www.geology.um.maine.edu/geodynamics/AnalogWebsite/UndergradProjects2010/PeterStrand/html/BackgroundPage.html)

We can see that a) large parts of the Balkans aren’t on the Eurasian plate, b) there is no plate boundary to the north of the Caspian sea that would divide Europe from Asia, and c) the entire Caucasus region is a crumple zone hundreds of kilometres wide. No precise boundaries there, it would seem.

Meanwhile, the anthropologist would point out that there has never been a significant cultural divide at the Urals: before the Russian Empire expanded into Siberia, the Huns, Mongols, Tatars and others had long since passed the other way. The steppe to the south of the Urals contains few landmarks and even fewer impediments to travel and trade. The tangled ethnic patchwork of the Caucasus offers more confusion than enlightenment. And to the south, the history and cultures of Greece and Turkey are as intertwined as Siamese twins; Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine from ancient times until the Crusades, they were unified once again in the Ottoman Empire (which conquered its dismembered predecessor more from within than without, and whose Sultan took the title “Roman Emperor”). After the 19th-century independence of Greece, there was a significant forced transfer of population based not on language or ethnicity but on religion, this being the true foundation of the modern division between Greece and Turkey.

Matthew Parris writes in the Times:

Much is written about Turkey and the European Union viewed from the West. From the West, Turkey is where Asia begins. Westerners reaching Istanbul from Europe are drawn by the Otherness of the lands at whose gates the city stands. Here we feel we leave the West.

That isn’t how it feels when you enter Turkey from the Middle East. I loved Syria – magical, different – but the place and its people seemed mysterious. Crossing into Turkey (all of us felt this) seemed somehow like coming home. There were road signs; traffic lights that drivers obeyed; you could read the writing; places and faces seemed open to us; women walked alone, bare-headed; shops and houses looked quietly middle class. From the train (small green fields, neat stations, stationmasters with caps and whistles) it could honestly have been Hungary. The Spain where my family arrived in 1974 felt more Third World.

Before writing off Turkey’s chances of joining the EU, people struck by what is alien about the country should take stock of what is familiar. Try arriving from the other side. Coming in from Asia, Istanbul feels like Liverpool with mosques.

To this day, Turkey claims to be a European country and consistently behaves as such. It has sought membership of every major post-war European organisation, and obtained it in every case but one – the EU. The main objectors to EU membership claim that Turkey is not a ‘European’ country but, as I have tried to show above, there is a shocking lack of objective evidence. Instead they distract from the main issue by focusing on current policy objections (free speech, Cyprus, etc.) which would need to be dealt with anyway, and are similar to issues that other EU-hopefuls have struggled with.

So where does this leave us? If Turkey is geographically not ‘European’, then what about Cyprus? If it is culturally not ‘European’, then what about Albania? No, the only self-consistent objection to Turkish EU membership is ‘there are too many Muslims in it’.

But nobody will say that.


3 thoughts on “On Turkey and Europe”

  1. Off the cuff, I think’s the whole issue falls under “civilisation”, eg., Christian, Muslim? May not rank well with many but to me, Turkey cannot be European if we go by that “denomination.”

    You mentionned it yourself in an earlier post that continents should perhaps be divided in terms of civilisation, if I remember rightly.

  2. European civilisation predates both Christianity and Islam. Indian civilisation embraces Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and more. Buhhdism, Confucianism and Taoism all contribute to Chinese civilisation.

    I think there’s a new blog post in this, thanks!

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