November 24, 2008

Discussed in the essay: A Bridge Too Far”€”Turkey in the European Union, by Philip Claeys and Koen Dillen (Uitgeverij Egmont Publishing, 2008), 224 pages.

Below the half-fallen ochre walls are piles of rubbish, human excrement, skinny dogs, darting lizards and wide-eyed gypsies, the latter staring back at us as we pick our way with difficulty along the undulating course of the fortifications. Down below us in the valley is a busy motorway, heading west out of the city towards Edirne and up through Thrace to the Greek border.

We are in Europe, yet not in Europe, walking a small segment of the still impressive medieval defenses of Constantinople. It is extraordinary that so much of the walls”€™ length has survived, because they have been superfluous to requirements since May 1453, when the long-desired “€œRed Apple”€ of Constantinople finally fell to the besieging Turkish Army, the end of a 54 day siege by the janissaries of Mehmet II, and the final act in the 16 centuries long story of the Roman Empire.

I like to think that it was somewhere along this section of wall that Emperor Constantine Palæologus fell on the last day of the siege, fighting alongside the last few gallant Christian (and a handful of desperate Muslim) defenders, his body overlooked and swept away into obscurity with those of his shattered army”€”but no one knows exactly where or how exactly he died, killed by some Ottoman fighter ignorant that he was single-handedly putting a full stop to one of the world’s longest-lasting civilizations.

The last clear anecdote of Constantine was from the city’s last ever night of Christianity, when he went alone to Midnight Mass at Hagia Sophia to pray for the city’s deliverance. The city’s food was almost gone, the garrison was diminished and exhausted, and the great boom defending the Golden Horn from enemy shipping had been circumvented by Mehmet’s logistically dazzling feat of having galleys hauled overland to be relaunched behind the iron chain. And there would be no help coming now. Europe’s kings counted their money and fought their neighbors as usual, while Byzantium slid into the storybooks.

We had seen Haghia Sophia a few days previously”€”a gloomy womb of a building whose stupendous dome and towering narthex were lightened by gleams of chalcedony, poryphyry, onyx and agate, and the sudden radiance of mosaics that must have been glimpsed in the candle light by the destiny-haunted emperor”€”the emperor, now, only of a few suburbs but who was yet supremely certain of his duty if not his chances of success. A day or two later, Mehmet rode up into the city over the robbed bodies of its late defenders, and proclaimed that the world’s largest church would henceforth be a mosque. We had seen, too, the marble faces of toppled gods and generals holding up the dripping brick vaults of the Roman Cisterns, where goldfish swim in lifelong ignorance of the sun, and the huge Hellenic physiognomies that look blankly homeward across the Bosphorus from the hot gardens of the Archaeological Museum.

And over and above all of these things from the past, we had seen the thronging Turkish present and future”€”the spice bazaar and the fish heads nailed up along the breakwater and the stink of sewage, the crocodiles of uniformed schoolchildren marching with Turkish flags beneath huge Atatürk banners, the thousands and thousands of squat, brunet people surging over the bridge from Asia to Europe, the hastening ferries aboard which we bobbed between continents while we drank raki and warming salep root, the clamoring taxicabs, the men who tried to sell us carpets and spoke of relatives in Birmingham and London, the mosque courtyards buzzing with chattering men performing ablutions and women in headdresses, the smell of feet in the Sultanahmet Mosque and of wonderful food from everywhere, the turbaned headstones in the toppling-over cemeteries, the whole city fizzing and itchy with poverty and vitality.

All of these intense and unusually olfactory holiday memories were brought piercingly back to me as if I had suddenly opened an old perfume bottle, as I read this book with awakening admiration and gratitude”€”admiration for the joint authors”€™ courage and commitment, gratitude for their timing and highly-developed sense of public service.

The ongoing attempt by Europe’s present sorry crop of leaders to permit Turkey to join the European Union is almost incomprehensibly irresponsible. Even the briefest examination of what Turkish accession would entail for Europeans suffices to show how foolish clever people can be.

Turkey has a rapidly growing population of nearly 80 million, 99.8% of whom are Muslims, many of those adhering to ultra-conservative views (for instance on women’s rights) that have not been common in Europe since the early 19th century. Its citizens on average are much poorer and less well-educated than even the poorest and least-educated Europeans. Much of its economy consists of unsustainable subsistence agriculture and increasingly uncompetitive manufacturing, often using child labor. Its infrastructure, from roads to schools to healthcare, is almost completely of Second World status. It is a politically volatile country, split between an army-backed secular state and aggressive Islamist political parties, with a murderous Kurdish separatist insurgency, and bordering such desirable neighbors as Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is a country whose troops occupy part of the territory of an existing EU member state (northern Cyprus), where police torture and press censorship are commonplace, and where it can be a criminal offence to mention the estimated 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. If permitted to join the European Union, huge numbers of its citizens would immediately relocate to join already large, already marginalized Turkish communities in western Europe”€”while billions and billions of Euros would flow the other way, to upgrade the roads of Cappadocia or provide Kurdish-language broadcasting in Diyarbakir. It is a country whose historical relationship with its European neighbors has more often than not been as an aggressor and oppressor”€”and which manifestly does not come within a scimitar’s distance of the ostensibly non-negotiable Copenhagen Criteria on democracy and human rights.

And yet Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership is supported by such diverse people as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, George Bush, Barack Obama, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, the European Commission, virtually all EU governments, virtualy all Europe’s Leftwing parties, many of Europe’s nominal conservatives, many big businesses and trades unions, many media and innumerable non-governmental organizations.

The most charitable possible interpretation is that all of these different individuals and interest groups are chronically misinformed”€”the “€˜case”€™ for Turkish entry being based on a couple of “€œdodgy dossiers”€ from the European Commission, a vague sense that “€œwe”€™ve promised”€ and the circumstance of some 4% of Turkish territory being made up of what used to be Greece before the Ottomans conquered it and killed, expelled or forcibly converted its Christian inhabitants. But unfortunately there is more than just ignorance at play.

There are big businesses that see Turkish membership as a means of facilitating their ongoing outsourcing and asset-stripping. There are Leftists who know that the only way they can stay politically relevant is by importing new disaffected voters, and trades unions which need new members. There are American geo-strategists who are willing to trade European culture for the use of a few airstrips. There are naïve utopians who see Turkish membership as a demonstration that Europe can cope with cultural diversity, or as a means of “€œextending stability”€”€”whereas of course all it would mean is exporting stability. There are neutered Europeans who are so careless of their own cultural identity that they would be perfectly happy to see it replaced by anything else, an attitude typified by Jack Straw’s throwaway 2005 distinction in a BBC News interview between “€œso-called Christian heritage states and those of Islamic heritage”€. (The selective application of “€œso-called”€ says it all.) There are “€˜conservatives”€™ who want cheap au-pairs or more Turkish restaurants or”€”most unedifying of all motivations”€”realise that Turkish entry would be calamitous but nonetheless want it because they think it will bring down the whole EU. (They seem to believe they will somehow be immune from the consequences.) Perhaps the silliest reason of all was offered by the Daily Telegraph newspaper on 18 May 2004, when it said that because it had opposed Gladstone’s campaigns against the Turks and supported the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, “€œit is with some enthusiasm that we again take up the cause of our old friend.”€

Up against this adventitious army is a ragtag, uncoordinated militia of genuine conservatives, genuine liberals, nationalists, a small number of academics, writers and even some senior EU officials, variously motivated by patriotism, realism, human rights idealism or the almost unconfessed feeling that somehow we owe it to our ancestors to resist what so many of them resisted so successfully for so long. But it is a militia chronically short of arms and ammunition, which is why this little book is so important.
Incredible though it may seem, so far as I know, this is the first book-length, English-language treatment on the subject of Turkey joining the EU. And even this book had to be translated from Dutch.

Written by two rising stars of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, and with a foreword by Taki, A Bridge Too Far is no crude anti-Turkish rant, but a careful demolition of all the arguments used for accession. Like Angela Merkel, Valery Giscard d”€™Estaing, Franz Fischler, and many others, the authors advocate a congenial and mutually beneficial privileged partnership between the EU and Turkey. Claeys and Dillen provide innumerable, unanswerable reasons why this bizarre scheme should never have been considered and should now be shelved. Their knowledge of Turkish history is extensive and sympathetic, from the original 7th century irruptions of the Seljuks into Asia Minor right up until the ongoing mass trial of secularists accused of planning a coup against the insecure Islamist government.

A Bridge Too Far will be ignored or derided by Turkey’s apologists and maybe even by some on the angelic side of the barricades, who will wish to distance themselves from the politics (real or imagined) of the book’s authors. But this would be a grave error, because on this subject many on the Left and many on the Right will find common ground. Very, very few Europeans”€”whether liberal or conservative, whatever their country”€”want massive increases in EU spending, yet more immigration, serious political unrest, Sharia law or increased censorship. Turkey’s accessories know this, and this is why they have been so secretive, and so careful to avoid offering Europeans any voice, let alone a vote, on the subject. But murder will out, and despite the lack of consultation, European public opinion against Turkish entry has been growing and hardening. And if the anti-Turkish forces are divided so too are the pro-Turkish ones, and economic recession or political troubles may further delay or even ultimately deny entry. But of course we cannot trust to luck, and this is why it is so fortuitous that this valuable book has happened along at this perilous moment, to inform and inspire the garrison guarding Europe’s southeasternmost perimeter.

Derek Turner is the editor of the Quarterly Review. He can be reached at


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