Thought Babble

Turkey not European enough? What is “European” anyway?

While the world celebrates the dawn of 2018, Turkey reaches the tentative milestone of 19 whole years as an EU candidate country. That’s almost two entire decades of waiting. The country has been an associate member of the Western EU from 1992 to its end in 2011. It also signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was officially recognised as a candidate for full membership in 1999. President Tayyip Erdoğan recently stated that Turkey is “tired” of waiting, jibing: “one cannot keep begging to join the EU.” But why the wait?

Evidently, Turkey’s political situation is complex and there are many reasons why their accession has been left on the back-burner for so long, namely their numerous human rights breaches and free speech violations as well as several vetoes by Cyprus. However, some are still claiming that Turkey should never join the EU as it simply isn’t “European” enough. Giscard D’Estaing was the first to claim frankly in 2002, that Turkey should never become a member of the EU because it is apparently “not a European country.” This accusation, of course, begs the obvious question: what is “European” anyway?

Now this might sound like a simple question – but you just try to give it a simple answer. With a whole new wave xenophobia and bigotry hitting Europe like a hurricane, putting the adjective “European” back on its weathered pedestal, the ambiguity of what “European,” or indeed “Europe,” actually means has become more pertinent than ever. What are these elusive criteria?

This has been up for debate for quite some time. Paul Valéry, the French poet and philosopher,  declared in the early 20th century that there are three influences which have shaped Europe as we know it today: the Greeks, the Romans and Christianity. In other words, a “European” nation must have been influenced in some way by all of these cultural sources.

In the same vein, to figure out what being European really means, first we must ask ourselves: what is Europe?

A continent?

Europe, unlike Africa or South America for instance, lacks obvious natural borders. Inevitably,  Europe has to be defined more as cultural continent than a geographical one. That said, even its variety of cultures is not in isolation from the rest of the world. But does this make the concept of “Europe” meaningless? Valéry questioned Europe’s 20th century narcissistic notion that it was “the pearl of the sphere,” declaring it instead to be, in reality, nothing more than a “little promontory on the continent of Asia.” But so what if you can’t see our continental borders from space! There’s more to Europe than geography, surely?

A community of values?

This question cruelly leads us crashing into another,  the matter of those  “European values” we hear about so often these days (usually in the context of telling immigrants that they don’t have them…). It was Jack Straw who coined the phrase “community of values” when he was the British Foreign Secretary. Indeed, the idea that Europe shares values of peace, equality and tolerance really is touching and lovely to think about. And sure, there is some truth in it – from the emblematic French motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to the social freedoms which many European nations have embraced over the last decades. But is there really a rigid set of values accepted across Europe? You only have to look at the differences in national laws and the disagreements both Poland and Hungary now have with the rest of the EU to realise that there definitely remain some conflicts of interest. There is, in fact, no definitive list of values or laws that all of Europe would agree on. And of course, there are countless values which many European nations share with countries in other parts of the world. So this is just another grey area.

A community of shared history and culture?

Okay, now we may be getting somewhere! Referring back to Valéry’s three criteria of Greek, Roman and Christian influences, it’s a pretty sound argument that for a country to be considered “European,” it has to tick all of these boxes. Although we can’t define Europe geographically and its vast variety of cultures and belief systems is complex, Valéry’s approach would at least offer that Europeans have something in common when it comes to cultural history. But wait: although European countries share a long history and a rich culture, this very same history and culture overlaps onto other regions – from the Moorish occupation of Iberia mingling Iberian and Arab cultures to the Soviet Union forging ties between Eastern Europe and Central Asia. How can we possibly determine who’s in and who’s out and who has influenced who?

So what can we take from all this?

Indeed, Europe has a shared heritage. But, we must not forget that Europe has been formed organically with influences from other regions and without obvious borders. Therefore, Europe remains a blurry and disputed term open to be used for political reasons. There is not obvious geographical or cultural cut-off point between Europe and its neighbours.

As for Turkey in relation to Valéry’s trio of criteria? It certainly has ticked the boxes in terms of Ancient Greek and Roman influences, with the Ottomans having a shared history with these civilisations since antiquity. And although Turkey may currently have a predominantly Muslim population, Christianity is part of its history too. Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands (now both part of modern-day Turkey) house the birthplaces of numerous Christian Apostles and Saints. Since this criterion is more an identifier of shared history than concerning current religious demographics, this should certainly fit the bill. On top of that, the Ottoman Empire not only once ruled over several current EU Member States, including Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, but has also been trading and exchanging ideas with the rest of Europe since the 15th century. So… who still wants to claim that Turkey is an outsider?


Paul Valéry, “The European,” “Crisis of the Mind”

Roxanna Azimy
Roxanna is a British and Iranian advocacy writer specialised in human rights, health, and welfare. With a languages degree from King's College London, a Masters in European Studies from LSE, and an EU communications background, she strives to increase the visibility of ethical and sociocultural issues in Europe and beyond. Twitter: @RoxannaYasmin Medium: @RoxannaAzimy

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