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Friday, November 15, 2002

Our Opinion

Last Tango In Athens?

The complete failure of former Turkish foreign minister Ismail Cem’s New Turkey Party in the national elections two weeks ago (it received just a bit more than one percent of the vote) was seen by many in Greece as the end of the intense “tango” in which he and Greece’s foreign minister, George Papandreou, had engaged during the last few years to the music of Greek-Turkish rapprochement. Two weeks later, however, it seems as if the two countries are destined to continue their dance in a much more intimate way than previously imagined (and what started out as a hot-blooded Mediterranean pas de deux symbolizing the two countries’ tough love might end up as a celebratory, if no-less-spectacular European waltz capping their mutually embraced – and common – future).

This, of course, has nothing to do with the soccer games between Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos, and the attendant silliness surrounding them since the first match in Istanbul on November 1. The United Nations’s proposal for a final resolution of the Cyprus issue unveiled this week by Secretary General Kofi Annan, as well as recent discussions and developments regarding Turkey’s candidacy to join the European Union (EU), indicate that Turkey and Greece are bound to each other in a close dance for a long time to come. While the Cyprus proposal is at a very early stage yet, which means that it is unwise to comment before the parties involved have a chance to study and react to it, recent startling developments concerning Turkey and the EU demand more attention.

Last week, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who also happens to be the current head of the European Union’s constitutional convention (or, as it is officially known, almost threateningly, the Convention on the Future of Europe), gave an interview to Le Monde that pretty much roiled the diplomatic waters the world over. Put simply, he denounced (in, it must be said, incredibly immoderate, almost irrational, terms) Turkey’s candidacy for membership in the European Union since, he said, Turkey was not part of Europe. Accepting Turkey in the European Union, he continued, would mean that the Union would cease to be European.

Although both the French government and the EU distanced themselves from Giscard’s remarks, his comments cannot be ignored, precisely because they represent the views of a former politician no longer involved in electoral politics – which means that Giscard can speak the words that many European citizens prefer to leave unspoken, knowing that they directly oppose the political consensus of their respective governments. The fact that Giscard’s stance does not constitute an isolated incident, but rather expresses the views of many Europeans, was evident a couple of days later. The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, declared that Turkey’s candidacy raises many questions concerning Europe’s identity and borders. He went as far as to insinuate that for some countries (such as Turkey), the European Union should seek alternative forms of participation. Villepin’s and Giscard’s remarks are significant for another reason: they are not based on legitimate concerns about Turkey’s record on human rights or lack of fully democratic institutions and guarantees, but rather on frankly racist stereotypes and outright prejudice.

It is instructive that Giscard named two countries as acting essentially as agents for Turkey’s accession to the EU: the United States and…Greece! Everyone would agree on the former; most everyone, however, would scratch their heads at the latter. That sly, old French renard knew from whence he spoke, however. For years, Europe has hidden its real feelings about Turkey’s candidacy behind the publicly acceptable European bogeyman, Greece. Greece became Europe’s convenient scapegoat for – and was ostentatiously blamed as the main hurdle – blocking Turkey’s union with Europe, due to the presumed problems in the two nations’ relationship. It is time for Greece to expose European hypocrisy. Greek politicians – former foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos, most famously – have spoken in the past about the need for Greek support of Turkey’s candidacy. Indeed, in his inimitably frank and thoroughly undiplomatic way, Mr. Pangalos just a couple of years ago claimed that European objections were nothing but undisguised racism. If Europe excludes Muslims today, he said in his singularly colorful manner, it will exclude Christian Orthodox tomorrow.

The Greek government’s position should now be clear and forthright: Turkey’s entry into the EU would represent the most comprehensive and critical step toward rapprochement between the two countries, placing their relationship at a fundamentally different, inestimably more profound, level. Indeed, it would, in many ways, inalterably integrate the two societies. Greek support of Turkey becomes even more important in the aftermath of the Turkish elections and the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

At a time when continuing Western – particularly American – support of corrupt regimes and dictatorships in the Islamic world has alienated many Muslims, the acceptance of Turkey into the EU under a moderate and democratically elected Islamist government can create an unusually resonant and highly effective model of governance for many Islamic countries. As Alexander Kitroeff argues in his article on the Turkish elections, the country’s union with Europe under an Islamist government would result in “Euro-Islamism, a historic compromise between Islamist politics and Western democratic norms.”

(A word of caution, however, both to Turkey and Greece: It is also up to Mr. Erdogan to prove that all the good will enveloping him and his party at the moment from Turkey’s friends in the West is not simply wishful thinking. In the past, he has said some pretty strange – and stupid – things. From wanting to turn Aghia Sofia back into a mosque, to precluding Islamic acceptance of secularism, to, most insidious and chilling of all, the notion that, for Islamists, “democracy is a means to an end.” He’s certainly got a lot of explaining to do. More to the point – because explanations are meaningless if future actions are in themselves culpable – the notion of a Damascene conversion after being tried and imprisoned in 1999 for inciting religious hatred makes good journalistic copy but it is up to Mr. Erdogan to prove to the skeptics that that was truly then and this is really now. One more word, for Prime Minister Simitis and Foreign Minister Papandreou: To be a genuine friend of Turkey means not only defending it when it deserves defending, but criticizing – and contesting – it when it needs to change its ways.)

In their unusually positive surveys of Greece (which are unprecedented in the last few decades), both The Economist (October 12-18) and Financial Times (November 12) focused on the country’s successful absorption of very large numbers of immigrants. At a time when Europe’s attitude toward immigration is inexcusably short-sighted and ruled by political opportunism, to say the least, Greece is becoming a model for a new, tolerant, and effective migration policy throughout the European Union. Greece’s strong support of Turkey’s EU candidacy, especially in the current political climate, can help shatter Western double standards and prejudice in dealing with the Islamic East. It can also raise the entire discussion of the “clash of civilizations” to another level, where it belongs: to a debate, in other words, not about confessional conflict, but about global norms, and standards, of democratic government and secular tolerance.

One final point, about this issue: We limited ourselves to two non-review articles, both written by Alexander Kitroeff, who went to Istanbul as’s correspondent, doing double duty as sports and political analyst for two events that were, in fact, of uncommon newsworthiness, albeit in different realms. As a historian of the Balkans who understands the region in a way that few do – which means in all its variety, contradiction, and fullness – Kitroeff is rare indeed. If nothing else, the fact that he can lucidly expound on soccer strategy, Turkish political-party formation, and the intricacies of Mediterranean meze reveals an astounding intelligence – as well as an encyclopedic perception of, and approach to, history that is genuinely exceptional in our day. is lucky to have his analyses – both of the soccer pitch and the political arena.

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