Turkish and Egyptian Intellectuals Analyze EU Bid at 16th Abant Meeting

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The 16th Abant Platform meeting brought together 50 prominent Egyptian and Turkish intellectuals at the Istanbul Grand Cevahir Hotel on December 15-16, 2007. The meeting, titled “Turkey: A Bridge between Civilizations during the EU Membership Process,” was comprised of closed work sessions conducted in both Turkish and Arabic.

We are talking about a country like Turkey being a bridge of civilizations in the EU process. If Turkey’s membership is not accepted, will they say, ‘We have lost this bridge’?

Huseyin Gulerce, Turkish columnist

The 16th Abant meeting was the result of long-term collaboration between Egypt and Turkey. The two countries’ Abant-related relationship had been developing ever since the popular 2006 Abant Platform on “Global Policies and the Future of the Middle East.” Due to many requests from Egypt after that meeting, the Abant Platform then organized another event, this time in Cairo in conjunction with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS). Titled “Islam, the West, and Modernization,” this meeting saw great interest from Egyptian intellectuals, and a new page called “Egyptian Talks” was opened in Abant history.

The 16th Abant meeting continued to build on this Egyptian-Turkish relationship, and participants focused on Turkey’s ongoing bid to join the European Union. The meeting’s most significant points are summarized below.

Turkey is a bridge of civilizations between the Muslim world and the EU.

It was frequently stressed during the meeting that Turkey’s EU membership is a test for the European Union and that its being accepted or rejected will define the West’s view toward Islam and Muslim countries. It was also emphasized that Turkey serves as a bridge of civilizations between the Muslim world and the EU.

Although there have been recent efforts to block Turkey from gaining EU membership, former Foreign Affairs Minister and Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentarian Yasar Yakis said that leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy “do not worry us.” He noted that today’s opposition to Turkey’s membership could lose its attractiveness in the future.

Yakis reminded the audience that with the change in Greece’s position, it became obvious that the real opposition was the state. “There is nothing we do not know about Turkey and EU membership,” Yakis said. “The difficulty now is how what people know will be used.”

Regarding secularism and religion, Today’s Zaman columnist Mumtaz’er Turkone explained that the secularism that exists in Turkey is somewhat different from that found in other countries. “Secularism in Turkey is not a principle that separates religion and the state and puts the state in a neutral position before the people,” Turkone said. “Secularism is modernizing the society. It is a principle used to make society into a Western type of society.”

Why does the EU want to make Turkey a member?

Yakis emphasized that economic reasons were motivating the EU to accept Turkey as a member. “If a judicial state develops in Turkey, European companies in Turkey can be followed more closely. For this reason, Europe is showing interest in Turkey’s membership in the Union,” Yakis said.

The EU and Turkey share common values.

Columnist Huseyin Gulerce underscored that Turkey’s own values are reflected in some of the requirements that the EU has imposed on Turkey and more generally on all Muslim countries. Gulerce indicated that membership negotiations with the EU should be made with this awareness in mind. Otherwise, it would be as if Turkey were faced with an issue that ‘belonged’ only to the West, when in fact this is not the case.

Gulerce added, “We are talking about a country like Turkey being a bridge of civilizations in the EU process. If Turkey’s membership is not accepted, will they say, ‘We have lost this bridge’?”

Turkey’s EU membership will expose the West’s perception of Islam.

In sessions held on the meeting’s second day, Egyptian academician Dr. Mustafa Elwi asked, “What will happen if Turkey is accepted to the EU? How will this be reflected in Turkey’s regional relations and in regional conflicts? It is necessary to think fully about how Arab-Israeli relations or the USA’s presence in Iraq will continue.”

Elwi also noted that there has been some improvement in Arab-Turkish relations in recent years, and in the case of Turkey gaining EU membership, these relations would improve even more.

Turkey’s membership provides hope for Muslim countries.

Elwi said, “In the case of Turkey’s membership, the EU will not be evaluated as either a Christian club or a private club. When this happens, the idea that some other countries will also be accepted to the Union will follow.” He added that if Turkey’s membership application is rejected, reforms taking place in most Muslim countries today will likely be harmed, given that support for these reforms is coming from Europe.

In addition, Elwi discussed how relations among regional countries have experienced change within the framework of Turkey’s EU membership. He said that depending on the outcome of the membership process, tribalism could benefit from it and become reinvigorated, which would be an extremely undesirable development.

Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs lived together in these lands.

Professor Niyazi Oktem pointed out that the EU has identified difficulties with minorities as problematic for Turkey’s membership, and yet some of these difficulties are the result of imposed international policies, an issue that affects not only Turkey, but also European and Arab countries as well.

Oktem observed that Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs had lived together in the area for centuries. Oktem added that the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) had lived freely enough during the Ottoman period to make other states jealous. Although today’s non-Muslim minorities experience difficulties from time to time, Oktem maintained that minorities had been quite free during the Ottoman period. He said, “When the Ottoman period is examined, we know that the People of the Book were freer than in any Christian country; this is Islam’s command.”

These meetings should continue.

The meeting concluded with Egyptian academician Nadia Mustafa’s assessment that adequate effort had been given to analyzing Turkey’s EU membership process and that it was necessary to continue dialogue and bi-lateral meetings with other countries in the region.

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