“Turkey belongs to Europe” – with these words in 1963, the president of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein, welcomed the Treaty of Association of Turkey to the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the European Union).
The contract with EEC
Atatürk’s pro-Western ideology is the basis of the understanding that Turkey is part of the European community. Therefore, the Association Agreement is perceived as an approach to full membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), notes Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NCC). However, the country’s financial and economic problems in the following decades, as well as military coups, moved it away from this goal.
Although after Erdoğan’s victory in the presidential election this year, Hallstein’s successor, Ursula von der Leyen, stressed that she wanted to work to expand relations between Ankara and Brussels, the European Parliament unanimously rejected the renewal of membership talks because of the state of democracy in the country.
Erdogan, for his part, stated that Europe and Turkey “go on different paths”, NCC recalls. However, Ankara cannot afford to completely break with Europe – its largest economic and trade partner. The trade exchange between Turkey and Europe by 2022 amounted to 198.1 billion euros, and 41% of all exports of the country are to the countries of the Community.
500 years of relations with Europe
In 2023, an important anniversary is celebrated – 500 years ago in the Ottoman Empire, the Office for Foreign Political Affairs – Reis yül-kyuttab was established. Its creation in 1523 marked the beginning of diplomatic relations with European countries. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire sent its permanent ambassadors to Europe. During the reforms in 1836, Reis yul-quttab was transformed into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the European model.
The foreign policy of the Ottoman Empire was completely subordinated to the economic orientation – pragmatically oriented and pursuing rational accounts for the expansion of power and territory. The archaic theses that the relations between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe were based on constant military confrontation do not correspond to the understandings advocated by modern historiography.
The European powers and the Ottoman Empire were rather in a state of constant competition, but at the same time they concluded military and economic alliances, says the NCC. The Islamic religion has played a secondary role in the foreign policy moves of the High Gate. After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans began to perceive themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Eastern Roman Empire. They see the Habsburgs as usurpers of the Western Roman throne.
The Ottoman elite began to speak Italian, and the Italians began to speak Turkish
The diplomatic relations that Italian naval forces established with the High Porte in the Late Middle Ages served as an example to other states. Genoa and Venice in particular built such serious trade relations with the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries that they did not cease even during wars. The Turkish language became popular among the political and economic elite around the Doge of Venice. Venice obtained important information about what was happening in the Ottoman Empire through a system of diplomats, merchants and spies. Italian became the leading language for the naval leadership in the Ottoman Empire, and it was also widely spoken by the ruling elite.
However, the most important military ally of the High Gate is France, emphasizes the NCC. As the Ottomans advanced on Vienna, the French king fought against the Habsburgs in Flanders and northern Italy. The capture of the French king at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 led to an alliance between the French and the Ottomans that continued until the fall of the Bourbons in 1789.
The absence of pan-European and pan-Christian action against the offensive foreign policy of the Ottomans was the result of the pursuit of their own interests. The Holy Roman Emperor of the German nation Charles V saw no reason to interfere in the conquest of Belgrade, Rhodes or the Ottoman military successes against his brother Ferdinand in Hungary and Austria, archival documents from the 16th century show.
Erdogan benefits from a divided Europe
Just as the Ottoman Empire benefited from a divided Europe, today’s Erdogan’s Turkey benefits from the EU’s inability to act unitedly in foreign policy, summarizes the NCC. It allows him to mediate geopolitical conflicts and use migration waves to apply pressure.
At the same time, the Turkish opposition accuses Europe of turning a blind eye to the “anti-democratic processes in Turkey” for its own interests, as the renowned Turkish journalist Bülent Mumay told ARD on the eve of the elections in May this year. “The Europeans put too little pressure on Erdogan. This hypocritical attitude of Europe severely disappointed the democrats in the country”, Mumai emphasized then.
Turkey will continue on the European path
Even after the end of the Erdoğan era, the European Union will face a rising Turkey, which is likely to follow Atatürk’s European path again. Despite the crises, the country’s academic and political elite believe that Turkey is at a decisive historical moment – on the threshold of its rise as a global power. The European Union would hardly be able to oppose anything to these efforts, writes NCC.