Let me start with a confession: I was in my student days, and for some while afterwards, a starry-eyed Euro-enthusiast. Looking back I like to imagine it was just a hangover from my schoolboy Liberal Democrat days, but in truth it was a principled if quixotic extension of my unionism (the me of five years ago would have been one of about five people to whom John Stevens’ New Unionist Party would have appealed).
Whilst I’m no convinced Outer, I have since trod the path from critical friend, to very critical friend, to fence sitter, to sceptic. Yet whilst I deplore the EU’s corporatism and elevation of a politicised officialdom over both genuinely democratic institutions and its subject population, one strength of the EU which I still believe has been a demonstrable good has been the power of the lure of membership as a driver of reform amongst would-be members.
Countries has geographically and culturally disparate as Serbia and Morocco have, driven by ambitions of varying realism to accede to the Union, taken important steps towards welcome reform. As a country that can take a healthy civil society and strong democratic norms for granted it can be possible to forget in the UK that the EU can play a genuinely useful role in guiding less fortunate countries towards that end.
It isn’t perfect by any means, and if commenters can list a dozen or a hundred instances where the EU has fallen short of its lofty ideals or tolerated malpractice amongst the member states I’d be prepared to concede them. But despite that, the benefits of the promise of EU membership have been real, and they are perhaps no more starkly illustrated than by the contrast furnished by today’s Turkey.
Throughout the Cold War, and arguably ever since the Kemalist revolution in the 1920s, Turkey has aspired not just to be a friend to the West but a part of the West. Like earlier Arab modernisers Ataturk had a clear idea of where modernity lay when he converted Turkish to the Roman alphabet and founded his new, secular order. Unfortunately, in this part of the world since the end of the war “joining the West” has meant engagement with Europe, and here Turkey has been systematically thwarted.
A broad, relatively shallow, trade-oriented Europe would not have had too much trouble admitting Turkey as a member, or at least seriously and sincerely committing to the process of allowing it to become one once it had its house in order. But given how tightly the Christian Democrats at the heart of the European project hoped to integrate the member states of their Europe, there was no room for a large, militarily independent nation of largely young, Muslim (and for some, brown-skinned) people.
Attempts to define Turkey’s lack of “European-ness” without reference to race and creed, admittance of which would be unseemly, have tended to boil down to spurious arguments of geography. For the record Turkey has a larger proportion of its territory inside continental Europe than wholly Asian Cyprus and no holdings so far removed from it as that distant European satrapy, French Guiana.
Having finally realised that there really isn’t a place for it at the European table, we are now seeing Turkey set off on an alternative path. President Erdogan, with his anti-Western speeches and tasteless palace, is coming to resemble ever more the drearily familiar stereotype of the dictatorial strongman, Meanwhile alcohol restrictions and the imprisonment of scores of secularist opponents after the Ergenekon trials demonstrate how swiftly he is trying to undo the old, Westernised order.
Erdogan is, in part at least, the product of a country that has concluded that there is nothing further to be gained from playing by our rules. There is plenty wrong with the EU, but it is worth remembering from time to time that a European Union looked up to by its periphery, and that engaged with them generously, had its uses. As the ravages of economics and incompetence continue to make it a less appealing proposition, we may come to miss that.