Adapt or die: what the EU can learn from 19th century Ottomans


On a crisp November day in 1839, in the Gülhane rose gardens of Istanbul, the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire, Grand Vizier Mustafa Resid Pasha recited a proclamation direct from the Sultan in the fresh morning air. It was to change the course of the region’s history for the next 70 years. Before numerous distinguished European guests and dignitaries, including the third son of King Louis Philippe, the decree from recently crowned Abdülmecid I espoused religious equality, modernisation and secularised Ottoman citizenship. It called for the abolition of corrupt tax farming, reform of conscription, and proclaimed the rights of all children to free secular education. 

The proclamation triggered the Tanzimat movement from 1839-1870s, the most extensive programme of modernising reforms the vast empire ever saw. It’s aim: to wrestle back power from local hands and win over the support of entrenched interest groups, including powerful religious minorities. It launched the Ottoman empire into industrial modernity. Tanzimat would enable the Ottoman Empire to compete with the European great powers in its own right, and most importantly, to unify and strengthen itself from within to face its threats without. Its method: using a strong, integrated bureaucratic class to create a new, inclusive secular identity, attempting to rob internal dissenters of their arguments that they faced discrimination at the hands of the Sublime Porte.

As the Pasha spoke, the empire was in turmoil. The millets, religious minorities, had gained extensive new powers, setting their own laws and collecting their own taxes. The once Ottoman governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha had declared Egypt an autonomous khedivate no longer part of the Empire, invading Ottoman Syria in 1831 with a modernised, formidable Egyptian army. Meanwhile, in the background Western Europe was flexing its muscles in the Near East; Algeria was conquered by the French in 1830, the Persian Gulf had emerged as an East India Company sphere of influence despite Ottoman claims to suzerainty and West Europeans and Russians readily intervened in the internal affairs of Muslim states over the treatment of the Christian populations. The Ottomans had to act, and Tanzimat became their new hope. 

Fast forward to 2017. The same European countries which feasted their eyes on the Ottoman prize with colonial covetousness have formed a union of their own, which now faces a hostile and uncertain new world. They face a Russia flexing its muscles in Eastern Europe, emerging powers ready to challenge the privileged economic and diplomatic role of the EU, and an American White House reluctant to commit to defending them. Just as the Europeans had vested interests in a weak Ottoman empire so do Russia and emerging superpowers today. As European states argue amongst themselves, competitors like Turkey, China, Russia, quietly ascend.

To counter this, the EU must learn to structure its support from within its borders in order to be taken as a strong, credible and unified force. As with the Ottomans, the task that lies ahead is to steal from its populist enemies their most powerful political tools; passionate appeals to democracy. No longer can the EU afford to ignore concerns, particularly from the fringe parties eroding their authority, about democratic deficit, isolated, unaccountable elites underestimating of the power of identity and a cumbersome, inaccessible EU legal framework. It cannot rest on technocratic laurels to achieve its vision but learn to bridge the gap between authority and the people. It must seek to find its advocates right down to the local grassroots in each of its member states and work hard to simplify and justify itself to the people it claims to serve. 

The EU must learn, as the Ottomans did, to rob its adversaries of their arguments; a directly elected president of the European Commission, for instance, would go some way to silencing the battle cries of European populists. The Union must take seriously concerns about democratic deficit. The EU is not on the brink of collapse, as the Eurosceptics claim, but it could face real danger should it not continue its current course. 

Tanzimat, ultimately, was a failure. In the face of European colonial greed, social inequality and bitter sectarian division Tanzimat never fully achieved its aims before the final death of the Ottoman empire in 1918. However, Europe can succeed where the Ottomans have failed. It has a strong, centralised institutional framework and, more importantly, counts among its members some of the most prosperous economies in the world. It has resources capable of uniting people as vast as the internet by which it can connect with citizens, resources the imperial class in Istanbul 200 years ago would have envied. Like the 19th century Ottomans, the EU’s time is running out. To combat its threats it must unify itself from within.