The limits of Europe, part I

Turkey has been big in the news this week, since last Sunday’s parliamentary election, and whenever that happens it raises the question of just what “Europe” is. Turkey’s geography and history pull it constantly in two directions, with it belonging in some sense to both Europe and the Middle East but never feeling entirely comfortable in either.

But at least the description of Turkey’s geographical position is uncontroversial: the Bosphorus is universally taken as the boundary between Europe and Asia, and Turkey straddles it. (Indeed its largest city, Istanbul, straddles it.) The latest instance, prompted by tomorrow’s opening of the first European Games, of what one might call the European boundary question lacks even that level of agreement.

The games are being held in Baku, Azerbaijan. They are controversial because Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state with a poor human rights record. But it is also (despite its hosting of Eurovision a few years ago) situated outside the traditional line used to mark the edge of Europe in that part of the world, namely the main ridge of the Caucasus mountains.

And of course those two things are related, although the precise nature of the relationship is one of the things that’s controversial. Suffice it to say that rigged elections and suppression of dissent of the sort that happens in Azerbaijan is no longer possible in Europe outside of its eastern borderlands.

There are a number of other reasons why I’ve been thinking about the European boundary question lately. One is the decision by Iceland a few months ago to withdraw its application for membership in the European Union. Another is the purely personal fact that around the same time I spent a couple of weeks in Morocco, which is the only country ever to have its application for EU membership summarily rejected (in 1987) on the grounds that it is not a European country.

And overshadowing all of those is the biggest geopolitical issue in Europe, the relationship between Russia and its western neighbors: never entirely straightforward, but especially fraught in the last year or so due to the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

All of which makes it worthwhile to attempt, from some different angles (this is going to be a multi-part effort), to tease out just where and how we construct our notion of “Europe”.

Iceland’s move was no surprise – its application had been on hold since the election of a new centre-right government there in 2013. Together with Switzerland (which has a long-dormant membership application) and Norway (which has had two attempts to join defeated by its own voters), it remains heavily integrated with the EU and bound by much EU legislation, but looks like formally remaining outside for the foreseeable future.

It’s interesting that the EU doesn’t give a high priority to pursuing these three holdouts, but at least there’s no dispute that geographically they are part of Europe. They would all be welcomed into the club if they could only make up their minds to join.

Morocco, on the other hand, sits on the wrong side of the Straits of Gibraltar, an even more obvious and well established line than the Bosphorus. Yet its claim to a certain degree of “Europeanness” is not fanciful; in the early medieval period it was the centre of a state that included much of modern Spain and Portugal. For most of its history it has been more closely integrated with the European heartland – roughly the area we now know as France, Germany, Spain and Italy – than have, say, Ukraine or even Bulgaria.

But Turkey, with an undisputed European foothold, is still having trouble getting its European aspirations taken seriously; its candidate status for EU membership (official since 1999, with accession negotiations having begun in 2005) is effectively stalled, and the governing AKP now seems cool on the idea. So it’s hardly surprising that another large but poorer Muslim country with less of a geographical case would be given short shrift.

There is still a program for EU expansion, but for some years now its efforts have been directed to the Balkans. There there’s no doubt that countries want to join, but there is a long process of getting their institutions up to speed and adopting EU law. Apart from Turkey, the other four official candidate countries where this process is under way are in the western Balkans: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The last new member to be admitted, Croatia, was also from this area.

Beyond that group, things get more difficult. Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo and Moldova all raise some thorny questions. And that’s before one even gets to the core of the old Soviet Union, to Belarus, Ukraine and Russia itself. Only once those issues are disposed of one way or another will the EU be ready to think about Azerbaijan and the rest of Transcaucasia.

In part II I want to look more closely at the Russian problem, and what sort of relationship borderline countries might have with the EU that fall short of membership. Stay tuned.


2 thoughts on “The limits of Europe, part I

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