Ask the average middle-class İzmirian if they consider themselves European, and the look you’d get would be total amazement, with a shrug that indicates “of course.” It is highly likely that they have a business that involves export/import or provides services to several countries of the European Union; have friends or colleagues among the foreign residents of the city; grew up in the same neighborhood and schools as the Greek minority; attended a friend’s Bar Mitzvah; went to several church weddings and travel quite regularly to the Greek islands on weekends to get cheaper alcohol and huge amounts of cheese. Give the İzmirian a drink too many and they would start raving about the “Great Ionian Project” – a new state that would include the Aegean coast in Turkey and Greece: a utopian paradise where the weekend would start Friday morning and end Monday around noon. Then, as the wine flows, the conversation would drift to the borders of such a state and how this state, naturally an EU member, would live off the hard-working Germans – two areas better left unexplored with a sober head.
The İzmirian view that “had İzmir been a country, it would long have been a member of the European Union” is not limited to the tables where Urla wines flow freely. Earlier this month, when the city’s mayor, Aziz Kocaoğlu, celebrated Europe Day with a conference on Turco-EU ties, he said the social and economic indicators of İzmir and the Aegean region were as high as many European cities, if not better than many.
Kocaoğlu, a Republican People’s Party (CHP) member usually known for his moderate speech, added that “İzmir and the Aegean region meets the EU criteria more than some of the member states as well as candidates.” It may seem that the combination of the fact that Moody’s increased İzmir’s credit rating to “AAA” and the Europe Day enthusiasm made Kocaoğlu unusually bold.
İzmir’s Europe Day celebrations last week by the Aegean Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (ESIAD), which has hosted the EU Information Center of İzmir since 1996, were overshadowed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s words to the EU: “We’ll go our way, you go yours” regarding the EU demand for a change to Turkey’s anti-terrorism law.
Despite the “fun factor” of the event through the culinary show of Greek chef Dimitrios Kaplanakis and the Jetlag Allstar’s group, sponsored by the Austrian Embassy in Ankara, the group of business leaders, journalists, academics and other İzmir folk were wondering whether Turkey’s long path to the EU was due for still another road accident.
“The president says that we will go our way,” said a businessmen who is also the honorary council of an EU country. “I would love to know which way that is. Socio-economically, I think the only way we have is the EU way.”
The city’s tourism sector relies heavily on European tourists. According to the data of the İzmir Tourism Office, quoted by Anatolia News Agency, the top tourists are from Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. Similarly, the city attracts European business: British retail chain Tesco owns the predominantly Aegean Kipa markets and has its headquarters in İzmir; Italian company Cementir owns cement producer Çimentaş. The city’s trade-free zones host high-profile international companies such as Hugo Boss.
ESIAD Chair Mustafa Güçlü, speaking at Europe Day, said: “İzmir, which is one of the cities of Turkey closest to the European Union, has long adopted the European Union’s values, the supremacy of law, democracy and individual liberties. It has the weight and capacity to play a pioneering role in Turco-EU relations.”
Role model or exception?
But this claim to “pioneering” may well be wishful thinking: Despite the impressed foreign visitors and Turks who pay lip-service to “the paradise of living in İzmir,” Turkey’s largest city is far from being an economic or social model for the rest of the country or a “showcase” for the central government. Quite to the contrary, İzmir remains isolated and slightly bitter that it does not benefit from subsidiaries that other municipalities enjoy. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is also resentful that the city remains “the fortress of the CHP.” A joke goes that, three years ago, during a Foreign Ministry’s Ambassadors Conference, Carl Bildt, then the foreign minister of Sweden, told his Turkish counterpart at the time, Ahmet Davutoğlu, from the roof of the Swissotel: “Now I see why you want to take this city so much.”
The city’s predominantly CHP local political elite has little contact with the AKP government and whatever relationship they have is usually conflictual. Transport Minister Binali Yıldırım, a deputy from İzmir, often remarks of his “constructive relationship” with the CHP mayor of the city, but seldom misses an opportunity to note that the city’s potential is underused by the current local authority. Yet, his remarks are a lot more acceptable to the proud İzmirians than the words of other AKP folk, including one earlier this year that “infidel İzmir was in moral ruins” and what its youth understood of Western values was “wearing shorts, drinking and dancing till morning.” The angry İzmirians were only partly appeased when the politician was not re-elected in the last elections.
For the time being, the European dreams of İzmirians, one of the highest cities as far as support for EU membership goes, are toned down by Turkey’s own reality. İzmirians may feel European, but their relationship with the EU in terms of visas, tourism, immigration and attractiveness to foreign business is determined by the EU path of Turkey – a long narrow path, as far as the established Turkish clichés go.
In the meantime, the İzmirians may remain as relaxed about work as Greeks, as fond of the good life as the Italians, as likely to carry out protests against the government as the French and as willing to get their hands on EU funds as all newcomers – to coin a few clichés about European Union member states.
Published in Hürriyet Daily News on May/14/2016