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By Khaled Diab
The EU rose out of the ruins of war. Perhaps, with a little patience, a Middle Eastern union is not such a distant fantasy.
18 August 2009
Last week, Tariq Ramadan argued that Turkey was very much a part of Europe and deserved EU membership. “The arguments that locate Turkey outside European history and geography cannot withstand analysis. For more than four centuries the Ottoman empire shared and shaped the political and strategic future of the continent,” he wrote.
In my view, Turkey is both a part of and apart from Europe. This also accords with my ‘mash of civilisations' theory – that the fault lines separating supposedly distinct societies belie the frequent alliances that cross them and the regular conflicts within them.
But even though Turkey is (at least partly) European, that does not mean it will join the European Union. And there are many reasons for this. One is pretty obvious: religion and the elusive issue of ‘culture'. The EU is seen by enough European leaders and citizens – either covertly or overtly – as a ‘Christian' club, a secularised version of old Christendom.
That would explain how some countries with questionable records on minority rights, such as Lithuania, or with dodgy economic fundamentals and economies run by speculators and oligarchs, such as Latvia, managed to become members.
It might also shed light on why Greece – the ‘cradle' of western civilisation – was let into the then EEC without pre-conditions or a lengthy pre-accession period, despite concerns over its “economic backwardness” and its ongoing conflict with Turkey, and how its lacklustre performance since has not raised eyebrows.
But it would be wrong to overstate the influence of Turkey's Islamic identity. As in so many other instances, religion, civilisation or culture are the cloaks that conceal other more mundane clashes of interests.
First, there are the genuine concerns – despite the massive economic progress Turkey has made in recent years – over the impact the country's large population of rural poor will have on the Union, not to mention the Kurdish question.
In addition, size does matter in the EU. Turkey's demographic structure means that it would be one of the largest, if not the largest, member state by population, automatically giving it a top seat at the European table, upsetting the German-French axis and threatening the status of other large countries. For that reason, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Albania might become members of the club before Turkey. Similarly, size is partly why Ukraine, despite its keenness to join and its Christian identity, is being offered the consolation prize of closer ties.
Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Turks feel peeved and frustrated after more than half a century of queuing patiently outside the gates of the EU. But rather than wait forever, Turkey should seize the opportunity and capitalise on its recent efforts to strengthen its Middle Eastern ties.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk‘s creation of a modern secular Turkish republic, Turkey has effectively severed its centuries-old links with the Middle East.
For their part, the Arabs have also turned their backs on the Turks due to painful memories evoked by centuries of subservience and the intense Turko-centricism that marked the final decline of Ottoman rule, as well as the dream of full Arab independence.
But there are certain things the region lost in the process which are worth rebuilding in a modern, fairer vestige – relative stability, the rule of law, cross-border freedom of movement, and a dynamic multiethnic multi-religious melting pot.
Just as the EU is a voluntary grouping of a region only ever unified through the conquests of the likes of Charlemagne and Napoleon, why shouldn't the Middle East become a voluntary union between the lands of the former Ottoman Empire and other neighbours willing to join, such as Iran and even Israel once it is at peace with the Palestinians?
Doubtlessly, the challenges involved in fulfilling such a vision are immense. The Middle East is not only one of the world's most unstable regions, it is also incredibly diverse, politically, culturally and religiously.
The elusive question is what unifying ideal should the Middle East rally around. Language? While Arabic is the most widely spoken, using it as a unifier for the region would alienate the Turks, Kurds and other non-Arabs.
Religion? While Islam is the faith of the bulk of the region' population, an overt clustering around it might well make life even more uncomfortable for the region's religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, Druze and others. In addition, it could strengthen the hand of those who wish to impose a region-wide theocracy. Moreover, it is likely to be more divisive than unifying as competing interpretations of political Islam struggle for ascendancy.
Culture? This could work, but only in the broadest sense. After millennia of cross-fertilisation, the region's peoples share many elements of a common cultural heritage – Judeo-Christian-Islamic, Greco-Roman, Persian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, etc. Another danger is that it could lead to a focus on the past rather than the future.
To my mind, the best unifier is pragmatism fuelled by a sense of common destiny constrained by common challenges: insecurity and conflict, poverty, the youth bulge, water shortages, foreign domination, etc.
Europe's first pragmatic steps along the road to integration were taken when a core group of six countries set up the European Coal and Steel Community. Similarly, the Middle East could take the first tentative steps by grouping around resources that are vital to the region's future, say oil and water.
Through this community, they would not only strike agreements on the sharing of cross-border water resources but would also set up a joint fund to develop and transfer affordable desalination technology. With only a few decades of oil supplies left, the region needs to make the most of what's left and start preparing for the day when the tank reaches “empty”.
A substantial fund should be set up to channel more petrodollars into regional investment and development. A major region-wide R&D effort to perfect and apply affordable alternative-energy technologies, especially solar power, should be pursued aggressively.
Another crucial area in this volatile neighbourhood is security. A mutual defence and non-aggression pact between the region's countries is a must for future stability – with or without a union. To underwrite human security, efforts should be made to establish an independent Middle Eastern human rights court.
If we take history as our guide, there is the risk that the emergence of such a bloc would be seen as a threat to ‘vital western interests', and western soft and hard power could be deployed against it. But the presence of Turkey – militarily powerful in its own right, a staunch western ally and an almost EU partner – can help reduce such risks.
At present, a peaceful and integrated Middle East of this kind seems like something of a fantasy. But then who would've thought that Europe could rise peacefully from the ruins of two world wars and tear down an Iron Curtain?
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 16 August 2009. Read the related discussion.