This very close neighbour, both fascinating and worrying, remains unknown to many Europeans. However, beyond collective representations, Turkey and Europe are deeply linked: historically, culturally, economically, in the very structure of their respective nation-states. Heir to the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, was born of the “Western” nation-state whose foundations are today challenged by almost two decades of Islamo-nationalist government of the AKP. In 2023, the presidential and legislative elections will perhaps confirm the success of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamo-nationalist project carried by a “pious generation”. Otherwise, they will lead Turkey on a new path, which the Young Europeans hope is European, democratic and federalist.

A people from Central Asia, the Turks, following the Seljuk conquests, gradually conquered Anatolia and Islamized it, pushing as far as the gates of Vienna in 1683. In European memory, a trauma and a symbol: the fall of Constantinople, the Second Rome, May 29, 1453. Having become Ottomans, the Turks fascinate as much as they worry the European imagination. However, the Ottoman Empire has its heart in Europe, in the Balkans. Mustafa Kemal, founder of the Republic of Turkey, is a native of Salonica and the famous Barbarossa is a native of Crete. Examples abound to justify the European affiliation of the Ottoman Empire and its descendant, the Republic of Turkey.

What is Turkey?

To understand the relationship of Europe to Turkey is to look at the perception of “Turkish” in the European imagination. Eternal threat, the “Turkish” is associated with the Muslim faith, adversary of the Christian faith in the Holy Land and is presented as a bloodthirsty conqueror. Associated with looting and raids on the coasts and villages of the western Mediterranean, how many tales from my Languedoc childhood present the Turk as the equivalent of the “big bad wolf”? Outside the Balkans, the figure of the “Turk” has been presented for centuries as that of a barbarian, that is to say as that of an individual who finds himself “outside civilization”. Evidenced by the violence with which the European colonial powers will try to share the remains of the Ottoman Empire during the Treaty of Sèvres. Witness the European and American inaction during the Armenian genocide. What good is it to do? Turkey is outside of “civilization” anyway, certainly not in the West, so what can we expect from them? The whole paradox of relations between Europeans and Turks lies in this tension, in this European imagination.

Because if people from Europe are far from considering the Turks as Europeans and even further from considering them as Westerners, the Turks consider themselves as such. In 1923, the Turkish revolution was based on the creation of a Turkish nation-state based on the Western model. Mustafa Kemal makes the westernization of the country the long-term goal of his authoritarian regime. Thus, the young Republic of Turkey was inspired by French Jacobinism, Italian Fascism and the Swiss legislative model from which the Turkish Civil Code of 1926 was largely inspired. If the Ottoman Empire did not care about ethnic differences and tolerated different religions within it, the nation-state, which cannot stand diversity and plurality, engaged in Turkey as it had engaged elsewhere in the West, notably in France, a policy of forced assimilation leading in the case of the Armenians to a policy of extermination.

As France forced the Catalans, the Occitans, the Bretons, the Basques and so many other “nations” to speak and become French in order to be “clean”, the Turks will force the Kurds, the Greeks, the Jews, the Alevi, Armenians to become Turks. The Kurds in particular adopt in large numbers the family name “Özturk” meaning “true Turkish”, “pure Turkish”. Sunni Islam is also becoming a vehicle for recognizing Turkishness. The result is the exchange agreement between the Orthodox Greeks of Turkey and the Muslim Greeks of Greece. Yesterday, a land of ethnic and religious diversity, contemporary Turkey is 95% Sunni Muslim, not recognizing any minority except the Kurds, who have very slim real rights. “Türkiye” means “Country of the Turks” in other words, not that of the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Kurds. This ethnic cleansing of Turkey is the direct result of the imitation of the Western model of the nation-state. In its very creation, the Republic of Turkey therefore imitated the nation-state model specific to a West that it itself hoped to become. The Turkish language, written following the revolution with a Latin alphabet, has kept elements of its lexicon. Thus, the word alafranga (“French style”) embodying modernity and Westernization came to oppose the word alaturka (“Turkish style”) embodying the old world, that of traditions.

Having never known democracy, the Republic of Turkey only experienced political change through coups (1960, 1971, 1990, 1997 and 2016). The last of them, directed against the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the only one to fail, perhaps testifying to a change of era, a shift from Kemalism to Erdoganism. Because the regime of Mustafa Kemal, whose functioning has been theorized and extended by successive presidents, associated with the army, guardian of Kemalism, is far from being a democratic panacea. From 1923 to 1946, the Turks were never called to the polls and these first elections were far from being free: the vote was public without a voting booth, the counting was private. Holding all the fields of power, the Kemalist elites experienced with immense consternation the rise to power of the Islamo-nationalists of the AKP from 2002.

Turkey and Europe : A European Turkey?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the first president elected by direct universal suffrage, changed the situation by redistributing the cards in the fields of power. His party’s rise to power coincided with the “glorious decade” that saw Turkey join the highly selective G20 club with double-digit growth rates. Strategically placed between Europe and Asia and, to a lesser extent, Africa, Turkey is at the heart of globalization flows. By giving birth to the Turkish middle class, by leaving a place for Muslim women in a society where secularism prevented them from existing socially outside the home, Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to keep power. It was also under his government that Turkey touched upon its dream of European integration. In 2008, almost nothing stood in the way of Turkey’s entry into the Union, the AKP by Europeanizing Turkish society had been able to dismantle the power of the army in order to recover positions of power with great reinforcement European credits. The EU’s refusal to bring Turkey into its midst has radicalized positions and opinions. In 2015, the agreement on migrants signed with Turkey also strengthened the power of the AKP.

The serious economic crisis that Turkey is going through today, the geopolitical wanderings of its leaders, the frustrations of the past, the lack of remembrance work on the reality of Turkish history, the attacks on individual freedoms, the Kurdish question more than ever to harm the power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The 2023 elections, one hundred years after the founding of the Republic of Turkey, will confirm Turkey’s entry into the era of Erdoganism or signify a new turning point for the country. Turkey is at a crossroads: between a regional power that is definitely asserting itself or a leading member state within the European Union. There remains a simple question: will the Europeans agree to bring a Muslim country of 85 million inhabitants into its midst? The answer is no. But then, how will they justify it? If Turkey takes a democratic turn and returns to the situation of 2008, will the Turks have to undergo a new non-response? Europeans will have to justify new criteria justifying their refusal and ask themselves the question of a clear definition of their identity, a question which may be very difficult to answer.

Where is Turkey going?

The fact remains that Turkey is today an essential Eurasian power, young, economically dynamic, rich in a thousand-year-old culture and a prestigious history. Governed by a reformer who does not hesitate to project his army into Syria, Libya, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean, to the point of risking angering the historic ally: the United States. Wishing to give birth to a “pious generation” offering an attractive model of political Islam despite its authoritarian excesses, Turkey worries Europe. Today, two worlds clash: that of Erdoganism and that of its opponents, more and more numerous, but with irreconcilable interests: Islamists, Kemalists, nationalists, separatists and Kurdish autonomists. No one knows where Turkey is going but one thing remains certain, Turkey and Europe are linked. Since 1987, Turkey has been a candidate for membership and its first economic and commercial partner, by far, is the European Union. The key remains agreement, cooperation, mutual understanding, ultimately, no doubt, membership. Nothing will come out of the confrontation desired by the nationalists and the conservatives, because Turkey and the Europe, however different they may be, are interdependent, united in their diversity.



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