The Great Debate

The Great Debate

In 2004 a paperback appeared in German with the title Turkey and Europe the positions. The book described the German debate on Turkish accession to the European Union. In the introduction, Claus Leggewie, the book's editor, outlined three big issues at the centre of this debate: the state of Turkish democracy; the relative backwardness of the Turkish economy; and geopolitics, including the question whether the EU would want to share a border with Iraq.

The book captured a German debate dominated by serious men with grey hair. Historians such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Heinrich August Winkler built their case against Turkish accession on the history of civilisations. Wehler's opening argument, presented in a much discussed essay in 2002, was that Turkey "has never been a part of historic Europe" as it had missed out on "antiquity, Roman law, the reformation, not to mention the enlightenment." Another German historian, Jurgen Kocka, pointed out that European identity was partially forged out of a common "defence against the Turks." Elder European statesmen such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt warned the readers of the German feuilleton about the incompatibility of cultures and long-term historical legacies.

The EU summit in December 2004, which followed the publication of the Leggewie collection, was to prove a turning point for EU-Turkey relations and the German debate on Turkey. In the second half of 2004 two-thirds of EU parliamentarians, 30 EU commissioners and 25 EU governments supported 'open-ended' accession negotiations with Turkey. This marked the political defeat of arguments based on the history of civilisations. It did not end the debate on Turkey in Germany, far from it; but it changed the debate in surprising ways, bringing to the fore new voices, issues and concerns.

Among the 39 authors selected by Leggewie in 2004 very few spoke Turkish. Only two of the discussants were women: one was an American academic and another was a German foreign correspondent. Not one woman of Turkish origin appeared in the anthology. From January 2005, however, it was above all two German women born in Turkey Necla Kelek and Seyran Ates who set out to redefine the issues at stake in the public debate. The new debate took place against the background of a series of traumatic events, including terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, riots in the banlieus of Paris, the assassination of film director Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, and the honour killing of a young woman, Hatun Surucu, in Berlin in early 2005.

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Gerald Knaus (ESI) on the German debate on Turkey, New York 2007.
© 2007 ABCNY. All rights reserved.

At the core of the debate that unfolded between 2005 and 2010 are the real lives of German Turks, in particular those who reside in urban areas such as the Berlin district of Neukolln, home to a large number of poor Muslim migrants. The new debate is no longer dominated by older men who do not speak Turkish but by eloquent women who do. Arguments about history and the borders of Europe are replaced by arguments about the treatment of women and the failures of integration of migrant communities in German cities, particularly Berlin.

By 2010 this debate has moved to the very centre of German politics. Its apex, for now, has been the summer 2010 publication of Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany doing away with itself), a book by Bundesbanker Thilo Sarrazin. Ironically, Sarrazin, another grey-haired man with no particular knowledge of either Turkey or Islam, completes the circle, picking up many threads of the debate of previous years including arguments made by sociologists Stefan Luft and Necla Kelek (by now one of his most prominent supporters).

It is ESI's conviction that this Great Debate is one of the most important to take place in post-cold war Germany. It bridges the border between foreign and domestic policy, linking arguments about the integration of German Turks in Berlin with those about the integration of Turkey in a wider Europe. As such, it offers enormous challenges for Turkish citizens who want to keep the debate on accession focused on traditional foreign and economic policy issues; it also offers great opportunities for populists. This cannot be helped, however; nor can it be an argument against engaging robustly with the many complex issues at stake.

This Great Debate derives its energy from fears and hopes; from the real sense that Germany (like other European societies) is changing rapidly and that Turkish EU accession would change it further; from the real challenge of an aging society faced with a youthful migrant population; from the need to integrate a new religion into a largely secularised society; from an avalanche of serious new research; and from an enormous reservoir of old prejudices.

Germany matters and so does Turkey, which turns this national debate into one of European importance. The quality of this debate and, most importantly, the policy responses it generates, will leave a defining mark on German domestic politics and the future shape of Europe.

For questions about the Great Debate please contact ESI director Gerald Knaus.

 The Great Debate – Germany, Turkey and the Turks. Part 1: Intellectuals (October 2010)

The German debate