< SWITCH ME >
For the first time we crossed an actual border: passports, customs, vehicle check. It was all very exciting and we felt somewhat more abroad once we were on Turkish ground. Our first impressions? For one, nationalism showed its face right away with enormous flags at the border post. Then, we were surprised by how little developed rural areas are (even on the European side). And when we hit Istanbul we were overwhelmed by the culture, the size, and the contradictions of this city that is literally at the edge of Europe. (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)
Following our routine, we try to discover some fun facts about the upcoming country. Turkey's economy grew twice as fast as Greece's shrank in 2010, we read. Istanbul has doubled in population over the last 20 years; and the city was European Capital of Culture (sic!) in 2010. Since we are now leaving the EU, we also consider the German Federal Foreign Office's website. With regard to driving in Turkey it recommends: traffic rules are rarely respected. Behave defensively and don't get involved in fights as drivers might react agressively. We comply and drive carefully through the night, towards Asia.
During our two-day visit to Istanbul we have the privilege to be invited by Okan University and the Turkish Policy Quarterly for a discussion with Turkish students and professors. We are also able to talk to Mustafa and Eda, two friends of our host Jasper, as well as to a few young Turkish people in the streets of Taksim. We have Kebaps, fresh fish sandwiches, smoke a water pipe, drink chai, and cross the Bosphorus by ferry. Turkey on a shoestring. But what about our findings? What do young Turkish people think about the EU and the accession process? In a nutshell, there are three stories to be told from Turkey. The first one is about why Europe is crucial to the Turkish population, the second one is about why it is not. And the third one explains why Turkish politics is more complex than most people think.
With over 100 journalists and academics in jail, the human rights situation is anything but satisfactory. "There is no free speech, people are afraid," says Mustafa, a young law student. When he launched a political website a couple of months ago with a friend, the friend's phone began to be checked by the secret service. Mustafa is lucky to study at a private university where arguments can be expressed more openly. Similarly, the participants of our discussion at Okan University complain about imprisoned colleagues and the general lack of democratic standards. The Kurdish population continues to have a hard time, too, as the government refuses to accept them as a minority. Professor Ayakon describes the situation as a "deadlock". As a consequence of all the human rights assaults, Professor Alemdar argues that orientation towards Europe is definitely needed. "Europe can and should be a norm exporter," she says. There are numerous other examples of how the military, the judiciary, and the political elite abuse their powers in the supposedly secular, democratic state. As part of the accession process these questions must be addressed. So the first story is: the EU is important for Turkey because it has the capacity to push the country towards better human rights standards.
What if Europe had its own version of The West Wing? Could a thrilling fiction show like Sorkin's perhaps make the "behind the scenes" of the EU attractive and understandable for the average European?
When I asked my friends, the answers were all negative: "To begin with, you would need Europeans to speak the same language," or "you would need EU politics to be entertaining in itself," or my favourite, "that would be too American."
It's funny how whenever I come up with an idea based on something that is originally from the US, the argument against it is that it is "too American." After some months dealing with conversations about European identity, I keep noticing how we reject any inspiration from them, but how in fact, we define ourselves as opposed to them. That is, we take peace as our flagship, while the US has a wider acceptance of war; we are proud of our welfare system, as opposed to their "ferocious capitalism." Fine. But none of these will ever mean that we cannot learn from them in those fields they nail. Communication certainly being at the top.
The idea about Sorkin began fermenting last week, when I was disappointed in the lack of headlines about the Spanish general strike in pan-European media. If the issue was big enough for the Wall Street Journal to publish this interactive graphic narrating the struggles of the families in the crisis, why not for Euractiv? I wonder why foreign international media have more coverage of our stories than our own pan-European media.
Outlets like Euractiv or the European Voice mainly cover EU affairs, which does not necessarily mean European news. That is, the pan-European media we have developed so far is not really about Europe, but about the Brussels bubble. Like the institutions they cover, these media tend to be technical and target an elite, but not the general public which needs to be brought closer to the institutions.
While national media often fail to provide in-depth analysis because of their efforts to reach a general audience, pan-European outlets face the opposite problem. They have the right dose of technical and thoughtful analysis, but provide the citizenry with little ground for mutual understanding.
Ever heard of Council Regulation 36/2012? Wondering what 2011/782/CFSP refers to? Exactly. EU-Officials are struggling to foster people's interest in European affairs. Meanwhile, young people have become fully fledged Europeans on quite a different level.
The founders of InterRail got it right when they initiated the Europe-wide train pass that allows young people to travel conveniently across our continent. In 2012 they celebrate InterRail's 40th anniversary and still carry some 250 000 travellers each year. The idea is simple: Get young Europeans to explore their neighbouring countries. This is not only an affordable way to spend enjoyable holidays abroad, but it furthers the travellers' awareness of what binds people together in Europe. A conversation with a random foreigner tells you much more about a country than any political communiqué or travel guide. Exploring the similarities and differences between European countries through travelling is the most obvious way to find out what Europe really is. At the end of the day, a European identity can only grow from within the population, not through regulations and policies.
While governing politicians across Europe are pushing for further integration in order to overcome the debt crisis, the people are not necessarily so enthusiastic, as the success of Eurosceptic parties demonstrates (in the upcoming elections in France, Eurosceptic parties from the extreme right and the left are expected to gain about 30%). Worse, most European citizens know little or nothing about what is going on in Brussels. European representatives lead a shadowy existence, remote from the public. Apparently, the EU is an attempt at European governance without a people that is interested - without a "European people." This unbalanced situation does not exactly help to increase support for the European project.
IN 25 DAYS