Will Istanbul Ever Be a Part of the European Union?

A thought that immediately occurred to me as we crossed back from Asia to Europe last night after dinner: Istanbul will never be a part of the European Union. It doesn’t fit. (In writing this, a thought subsequently occurred to me: that sounded eerily like something Thomas Friedman would write.)

Istanbul’s the only city of its size, prestige and power in a vast area of the planet—you have to go to Moscow in the north, probably Dubai in the south, central Europe in the west and probably India in the east to get this kind of economic power. It doesn’t deserve to be second fiddle to anyone, and with Turkey’s rise, I can see it playing a global role, in the near future, commensurate with its historic one.

At the moment I’m overlooking the last stop on the European rail network. From here, you can go all the way to London. There’s another rail station on the Asian side of Istanbul, and a long-running project aims to connect the two with a multi-billion-dollar underwater tunnel system. Everywhere we go things are under construction.

The city is unbelievably old, assured of its place in history, but newly unpolished and young, bursting with energy, and still trying to figure itself out. You could see why a world conqueror would make this place his capital, as Constantine did in the 4th century, and Muhammad al-Fatih did some 1,100 years later. Just saying that is impressive. It’s the kind of line tour guides love.

Yet its robust religious life seems out of place in Europe, and that makes a lot of Europeans uncomfortable. I see a lot of young folks in mosques, a tremendous change from my first visit here, in the 1990s. There’s also ambition here, more doing than realizing what’s being done, a Turkish confidence that wants their country to be a player in the world.

Unless the European Union recognizes that, and accords Turkey a place respectful not of where it is, but where it has been, and where it could go, no political process would work. And if current European Union citizens seem disinclined to accept Turkey, then that too is their right—a meaningful political union cannot be founded merely on economic ties.

But it’s another point that’s more relevant: there are more people in Istanbul than in all of Greece. Let’s say Turkish membership talks go forward, and enough Europeans are convinced Turkey won’t dilute whatever it is they want Europe to be. By the time Europe gets over its economic crisis and Turkey clears its hurdles, this country may well be more populous than Germany, making it the largest in the EU.  

Would Europe be okay with that?

The Turks I’ve talked to so far, an admittedly small sample, generally feel Europe will accept them, because it must. Perhaps this is wishful thinking. But perhaps it’s something more: a feeling that they’re going somewhere good, and everyone will have to deal with that reality. How can Turkey not, they wonder, be accepted by Europe—as an equal?

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