Seeing versus Viewing in Turkey-EU relations

Seeing versus Viewing in Turkey-EU relations

The Charlemagne column in last week’s The Economist magazine made a comparison between Turkey and Britain, both countries being “scrappy outsiders” to the EU. “On leaving the EU, Britain was always going to have a choice: Should it be more like Switzerland or Turkey?” wrote the columnist, suggesting that the Brits have decided to be contentious, like Turkey. Our leaders are begrudging and childish, it suggests, throwing stones and asking for comforts they are not entitled to. I disagree. It’s the wrong analogy. A better way to think about it is to reflect on the difference between seeing and viewing. Let me explain.

When it comes to the British choice set, it’s not one between Switzerland versus Turkey. Both Switzerland and Britain could have been in the EU, but decided not to be. Turkey wanted to get in, but never managed to do so. After a promising start, its accession process stalled.

Have a look at EU-Turkey relations since 2007-2008. Both sides have been looking for a “positive agenda.” What does that mean? It means that the formal accession talks are so negatively charged that both sides are looking for some unrelated positivity to inject into it. It is the drug addict’s desire to numb the pain of existence. I remember high level dialogue meetings that should be shameful, both for Turkey and the EU.

I find the EU’s transactional approach for cooperation with Turkey, the longest-serving candidate country for the EU, totally hypocritical. Not being a part of the EU would be one thing, but waiting at the gates and not being let in is another. Turks feel personally offended. The country has been pushed out of the regular channels of engagement. The EU, of course, also has its side of the story, but most ordinary Turks don’t really think of that, no matter their political persuasion. They don’t feel that they are being seen for who they really are.

Isaac Asimov’s 1956 science fiction novel “The Naked Sun” is set on the planet Solaria. There, individual spacers live in complete isolation in their large estates, tended by robots. When they look at each other through technological means, such as through three-dimensional chat functions, they say that they are “viewing” each other. When people are in each other’s physical presence, in Solaria’s language, they are “seeing” each other. One is remote and impersonal, while the other is intimate. “Seeing” is laden with emotion, either good or bad. It can transmit deadly diseases (a big concern on Solaria) or allow people to cooperate and build lives together.

In the case of Spain, the EU embraced the country right after the coup attempt of Colonel Tejero in 1981, and Spain became an EU member in five years. Fast track. Margaret Thatcher was one of the first to denounce the coup attempt at the time and support Spanish accession. Spain was “seen.” The connection between the EU and Madrid was intimate, they were breathing the same air, so to say, and building a future together.

In Turkey’s case, the EU only ever “viewed” it from afar. Over time, this turned Turkey into a spoiler.

I read European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s Turkey announcement with these in my mind.

“Given Turkey’s more constructive attitude recently, we are ready to engage in areas of joint interest such as migration & customs.” She noted, “But if Turkey returns to unilateral actions or provocations, in particular in the eastern Mediterranean, we will suspend our cooperation.”

I don’t think that means that the EU is ready to “see” Turkey, but at least it has proven willing to view the good parts as well as the bad, and be pragmatic. Let’s see where it will lead us.

Güven Sak,