In his January meeting with EU ambassadors, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed that “the EU accepting Turkey as a full member will be an ontological choice in terms of the future of the Union.”
Erdogan’s reference to the concept of ontology came as a surprise to many, with some even claiming that it must have been the result of a mistranslation. Nevertheless, the concept of ontology is nothing new to Turkey’s governing elite, especially among AKP scholars such as Erdogan’s spokesperson and special adviser Ibrahim Kalin, and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, both of whom have shown a particular academic interest in the subject.
Ontology is the study of the concept of “self”. It is a branch of philosophy that has found its place in politics because states, much like individuals, strive to maintain consistent and continuous self-identities. This enables states to preserve their ontological security in the international arena.
Erdogan’s recent rhetoric towards the EU does not seem to display a concern with Turkey’s ontological security so much as it does with the EU’s ontological uncertainty. In his January speech, he suggested a solution to Brussels’ ontological insecurity, in that “the uncertainty that has heightened with Brexit will be dissipated with Turkey taking its rightful place in the European family.”
When Erdogan talks about the EU’s ontological insecurity, he mainly refers to the weakening of two separate narratives related to the EU’s identity. First is the EU’s status as a global power. In his message on Europe Day, May 9, he emphasized the EU’s diminishing significance as a global actor as a result of many factors, most notably Brexit. Secondly, Erdogan often remarks that the aspect of the EU’s identity revolving around a value system comprised of tolerance, non-discrimination, and inclusion is similarly on the decline. He commonly cites the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis and rising Islamophobia as evidence to support this argument.
In the end, Erdogan is arguing that the EU is not living up to its identity due to its ontologically unacceptable strategic policies, or “strategic blindness” as he called it in the January meeting. For him, integrating Turkey into the EU would fix this ontological dilemma, as it would allow the EU to retain its global power status and reaffirm its commitment to a value system that rejects Islamophobia. In other words, Erdogan’s message to Brussels is ‘Let me help you be what you claim to be’.
But why is Erdogan talking about the EU’s uncertainty? First, he loves saving Europe. Erdogan’s pragmatism, masked by rhetorical altruism, towards Europe is very well known. His account that “the European Union needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU” has become an idée fixe within Turkey’s discourse on the EU over the past few decades. Very often in recent history, Erdogan has offered Turkey as the EU’s savior from its own disaster. The existential threats to the EU, that Erdogan often makes references to, are of a different nature, mostly related to Brussels’ own economic and security problems. Now, capitalizing on the political mess created by Brexit and the refugee crisis, his manipulative instrumentalization of narratives is designed in a way that will point to the existential threats to the EU’s ontological foundations – the identity of the EU itself. And once again, Erdogan’s suggested ontological solution is Turkey’s membership in the Union.
Second, Erdogan loves solving global-power uncertainties. Turkey’s political elites are infatuated by the concepts of status, identity, and prestige. Turkey’s recent international disintegration and weakening significance are synonymous with the phrase “the sick man of Europe” that was initially employed in the 19th century to describe the political and economic decline of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s obsession with Ottoman grandeur and power, and the struggle to regain that status for Turkey might be one of the reasons for the use of ontological narratives in his rhetoric towards the EU.
But can Turkey really strengthen the EU’s identity? Erdogan’s conceptualization of identity is starkly intertwined with notions of power. In his political worldview, one’s continuous existence is dependent on power possessed and exerted, hence his statement on the “ontological choice in terms of the future of the Union”. The EU’s diminishing status as a global power is exactly what Erdogan means when he refers to Brussels’ ontological uncertainty. Therefore, Turkey’s potential contribution to the EU’s power in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean is presented as an “ontological choice” for the EU. However, Erdogan neglects the fact that the EU’s identity is not based solely on power. On the contrary, the European “self” is composed of many elements, including values and political norms, many of which are not respected or maintained by Erdogan’s governing of Turkey. This does not make Erdogan’s Turkey an attractive choice for the EU – at least not an ontological one. Ontological foundations of an identity are not there only to secure the continuation of mere existence, but to establish the framework of how to exist. Power cannot do it alone.