Istanbul 2010 ‘great opportunity’ for EU to understand Turkey

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Awarding Istanbul the title of 'European Capital of Culture' is a great opportunity for Europe to understand Turkey and for Turkey to better understand the EU, Egemen Ba???, Turkey's EU chief negotiator, told the European Parliament on 2 February.

Ba???, who is also a member of parliament for Istanbul and a promoter of the city as European cultural capital for 2010, told MEPs that he "cannot imagine Europe without Istanbul," a metropolis which was once the capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

Tapping into the fascination surrounding the unique historic heritage of the city formerly known as Constantinople, Ba??? quickly waded into arguments about the EU's interest in taking on board his nation of 72 million people.

"Europe is the problem, Turkey is the solution," said Ba???, explaining that ageing European societies could benefit from the accession of a country where the average age of the population is 28, compared to 42 in the European Union.

"We have the fourth largest workforce […] The famous French automaker Renault had all facilities going at loss in 2008, except for the facilities in Romania and Turkey," said Ba???.

He said debate was rife over where Renault's new facilities should be built: in France or in Bursa, Turkey. "Of course, Renault executives said, if we don't build in Turkey, we will lose money," Ba??? said.

The Turkish minister seemingly wished to dispel lingering doubts that a large Muslim country would bring terrorism and extremism to Europe.

"The kids who turn cars over in France and burn them do not come from Morocco or Algiers. They were born in Paris. The terrorists that attacked London were not from Pakistan. They were born in London. They received education in the UK and they chose to become terrorists," he argued.

Hüsamettin Kavi, chairman of Istanbul 2010's advisory board, said that obtaining the title of cultural capital had helped to develop a 'civil platform' since 2008, when the award was made, and had given Turkey's cultural development an unprecedented boost.

"We believe that Istanbul is the most inspiring city in the world," he said, adding that the former Constantionople is "at the east of the West and at the west of the East".

Berel Madra, visual arts director of Istanbul 2010, spoke of the "sustainable effect" of being cultural capital, which is expected to bring advantages to the country's biggest city well beyond the current year. Citing an example, he said he expected the number of foreign tourists visiting Istanbul to increase from the present level of seven million per year to 10 million in 2010.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the fact that the launch event of Istanbul 2010 in the European Parliament was mostly attended by MEPs from the centre-left, the Liberals and the Greens, with the centre-right EPP group largely absent, Cengiz Aktar, international affairs director of Istanbul 2010, singled out the name of EPP-affiliated Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruitjen, who strongly supports the initiative.

But Aktar nevertheless admitted that the EPP group was "divided" regarding Turkey's EU accession bid.

Turkish journalists present at the event shared their impression that the number of Turkish officials who had come to Brussels for the occasion vastly outnumbered the number of MEPs present.

In the context of the often difficult relations between Athens and Ankara, Greek MEP Niki Tzavela, from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, surprised those present by saying that she found it difficult to go six months without going to Istanbul, which she called "the queen of the cities, the city of cities".

She warmly encouraged the international audience to visit and discover Istanbul.

Professor Nilüfer Göle, professor of sociology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, challenged the audience by raising the issue of whether the choice of Istanbul as Europe's capital of culture was indeed as 'natural' as many speakers claimed.

Culture is also something that divides, she argued, pointing to objections to Turkey's EU membership on the grounds of "cultural differences" and even "civilisational" ones.

"We can see the decision to grant Istanbul with this title either as an irony, or as a sign that Europe is taking a new path," she argued.

The title of 'European Capital of Culture' was created by the EU in 1985. Capitals are chosen by an international panel of thirteen members, six of whom are appointed by the country concerned and seven by the EU institutions. While the final decision rests with the Council, their endorsement of the panel's decision is considered a formality. 

Candidates must fulfil three main criteria: integrating a true European dimension, reinforcing cooperation among EU countries with the support of the public and highlighting the role of the city in the formation and development of culture in Europe. 

Successful candidates must also devise a programme with a lasting impact that contributes to the long-term cultural, economic and social development of the city concerned. 

The upcoming capitals of culture are: 

  • 2011: Turku (Finland) and Tallinn (Estonia)
  • 2012: Guimarães (Portugal) and Maribor (Slovenia) 
  • 2013 : Marseille (France) and Košice (Slovakia) 
  • 2014: Umeå (Sweden) and Riga (Latvia) 

Istanbul is not the first city outside the EU to have been selected as European Capital of Culture. Bergen and Stavanger in Norway and Reykjavik in Iceland have held the title in previous years. However, the opportunity for non-EU cities to apply was recently shelved.

Istanbul won this year's title after beating the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, to the honour.

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