Turkey gets more connected

A few months ago, on the occasion of mass protests in Istanbul and other cities, there was a lot of debate about whether Turkey had become something close to a European-style democracy or was sliding into some sort of Islamist authoritarianism. You can read my contribution to the debate here. I concluded by saying that “It could still all go horribly wrong, but for now it looks as if the script is following New York or Madrid rather than Cairo or Beijing.”

That’s pretty much what happened; the government made some concessions, showed that it had listened (at least to some extent) to the protesters, and most people moved on. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks less comfortable than he did a year ago, but if his regime falls it will be at the ballot box, not in the streets.

But the issue of Turkey’s status never goes away. History, culture and geography all link it inescapably to both Europe and the Middle East – always present in both, but never comfortably part of either. Istanbul in particular, by far the country’s largest city, has a split personality, straddling the Bosphorus, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia.

Yesterday, however, Istanbul – and therefore Turkey as a whole – became more connected, with the opening of the Marmaray tunnel linking the two halves of the city by rail. For the first time, trains will be able to run from Europe into Asian Turkey and (at least in principle) on into Syria, with potential connections to Iran, Pakistan and India.

This shouldn’t be overstated. It’s certainly not, as the Guardian claims, “connecting two continents by rail for the first time” (trains have run across the Urals for well over a century). Reaching Iran and points east still depends on taking a ferry across Lake Van, a much bigger gap than the Bosphorus, although a replacement rail line is planned; in any case, Europe and Iran are already linked by rail via Russia and Turkmenistan.

Nonetheless, the symbolic impact is pretty significant, and Erdogan is clearly milking it for all it’s worth. The opening was timed to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish republic. As AFP reports, his “critics accuse him of bringing forward the inauguration of the Bosphorus tunnel in time for municipal elections in March 2014.”

One can’t help comparing the new link with the Channel tunnel that has connected Britain to the European mainland since 1994. Crossing the Channel was a much bigger endeavor, more of a break with the past (there were no existing bridges, as there are over the Bosphorus), and unmistakably international in its implications, whereas Marmaray’s main usage will be for suburban travel.

But over time there may still be a psychological effect. People on the Asian side of Istanbul as well as those further east will have an additional reason to think of themselves as linked to Europe. From both sides of the new tunnel, the idea of Turkish participation in European institutions, including of course membership in the European Union, might come to seem a bit more natural.

It must be said, however, that whether being physically connected has actually helped reconcile the British to the European project is debatable. Sometimes it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Time will tell whether the Turks, given the chance to travel to Europe a bit more readily, actually like what they see.

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