This is one of the big issues that faces Europe over the next decade; how to deal with Turkey. Is it part of Europe or is President Sarkozy right when he says he will not “tell French schoolchildren that the borders of Europe extend to Syria and Iraq”? If it is not admitted to the EU will it be a thorn in Europe’s side as a hotbed of muslim fundamentalism? Why do people in Europe think of the Turks as ‘Arab’ when they are anything but? Does this European antipathy result from recent events related to fundamenatlist Islam, or its it something deeper, harking back to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the destruction of Byzantium? In short a battle between Christian and Muslim, the ‘West’ versus the ‘East’? A conflict that is as old as time an started with the Greeks and Persians …
Will Turkey’s EU membership dream come true?
Bringing Turkey into the fold raises profound questions about the very nature of European identity, reports David Blair in Istanbul.
Burying the grievances bequeathed by history lies at the heart of the European ideal. The enmities of living memory, particularly the fratricidal struggle between France and Germany, no longer haunt the European Union, yet one far older and deeper fear still lurks behind a vital question about its future.
Five centuries ago, Europe lived in dread of Turkey’s expansion up the Danube valley, with Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire’s longest-serving and most successful Sultan, dispatching his armies from Istanbul to conquer Hungary and besiege Vienna.
Today, Turkey is a secular democracy, a longstanding member of Nato, an adherent of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe, and a country firmly anchored in the West. Suleiman built a magnificent mosque that still dominates Istanbul’s skyline, but the streets around his creation are not relics of Byzantium – they look and feel like any in Europe’s Mediterranean heartland.
Many ordinary Turks proclaim themselves to be European and their country’s Western outlook is woven into the very fabric of the secular republic created by Ataturk in 1923. Accordingly, Turkey’s government harbours a cherished ambition to join the European Union. Formal accession talks designed to achieve this aim began in 2005, with Britain the most prominent supporter of Turkey’s bid for membership.
Yet bringing Turkey into the fold raises profound questions about the very nature of European identity and the boundaries of its civilisation. It also stirs deeply ingrained folk memories of that advance along the Danube.
Many leaders, particularly President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, make no secret of their unease. Since winning power in 2007, Mr Sarkozy has hardened France’s position on Turkey’s accession into an outright “no”.
Earlier this year, he urged European leaders to stop “lying” about Turkey’s chances of achieving full membership and declared that he would not “tell French schoolchildren that the borders of Europe extend to Syria and Iraq”. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, quietly agrees with him, leaving Gordon Brown as the only leader of Europe’s “big three” to favour Turkey’s application.
Lying behind these concerns is one unspoken fact about Turkey’s possible accession: if it succeeds, the EU’s second most populous member state would be 97 per cent Muslim. At present, Turkey has 72 million people, but this will rise to almost 100 million by 2050. Letting Turkey join would create the near certainty that, eventually, the biggest EU member state would be overwhelmingly Muslim. Leaders who oppose Turkey’s ambition tend to tiptoe around this fact, while dropping hints that it is not far from their minds. Most candid was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who was chosen to oversee the drafting of the EU’s stillborn constitution.
Allowing Turkey to join “would be the end of the European Union”, he declared in 2002, because the country has a “different culture, a different approach, a different way of life”.
The EU knows how to manage successful enlargements, having doubled its membership in less than 20 years. When the club expanded to embrace the countries formerly trapped behind the Iron Curtain, no one denied the European identity of the likes of Poland, Hungary and Lithuania, nor their essential right to join the EU on the same basis as any existing member.
With Turkey, however, everything is different. “I think Europeans see Turkey as being part of the Arab world,” says Okan Oktenoglu, a 42-year-old hotel worker in Istanbul. “Some of them think we are fanatical Muslims, like the Taliban. But I am European. People here think like Europeans.”
In the end, the debate over Turkish membership turns on two opposing conceptions of European identity. Mr Sarkozy – and with greater candour, Mr Giscard d’Estaing – see this as bound up with ethnicity, history, geography and, put bluntly, a Christian heritage.
There is, however, another way of seeing European identity, by which Europe is about values: democracy, human rights, the rule of law, religious and political tolerance. Any country that embraces this way of life becomes European by virtue of this choice and is therefore eligible for EU membership.
On this criterion, Turkey has a strong claim. The prospect of EU membership has reinforced the country’s secular democracy and led directly to fundamental reforms, notably the abolition of the death penalty.
“The relationship with the EU has been the driving force of change in Turkish politics, society and economics,” says Ilter Turan, professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul.
The central question is whether this might run into the sands if full membership becomes a hopeless quest. The formal accession talks now under way are divided into 35 subjects or “chapters”. Of these, only one has been completed after four years of work. Mr Sarkozy has chosen to prevent five that bear directly on the practicalities of EU membership from even being discussed.
The lack of progress along this obstacle course has soured the debate in Turkey. Once, more than 70 per cent of the public favoured EU membership; that total has now fallen to 48 per cent in a recent survey.
“As the position of the French government has evolved into an absolute ‘no’, so the enthusiasm here has waned,” says Prof Turan. “People say ‘if you don’t want us, then we don’t want you’. But people also know that the EU is not a united block of no-sayers. They understand that the intensity of anti-Turkish feeling displayed by Mr Sarkozy is not typical.”
So Turkey has not given up, but the further reforms required by the EU are hugely ambitious. Complying with European environmental regulations could cost Turkey £120 billion, according to Cenghiz Aktar, the head of the EU relations department at Bahcesehir University. Allowing European firms to compete in the country’s public procurement market of about £50 billion is another requirement. No Turkish government could possibly take these steps without a real prospect of EU membership as the ultimate reward.
But Turkey’s government can still damage its own cause. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is notoriously intolerant of criticism. Earlier this year, the government took revenge on the Dogan Media Group, which owns a variety of critical newspapers and television stations, by landing it with a tax bill of almost £1.6 billion – more than the company’s entire value. The European Commission, which will issue a progress report on Turkey’s application in December, said this showed “freedom of the press is at stake”.
In the end, however, guaranteeing Turkey’s position as a pillar of stability in the Middle East is of overwhelming long-term importance. Allowing the country into the EU could ease relations between Islam and the West and help Turkey to export its success to the world’s most troubled region.
Conversely, a Turkey spurned by the EU would be far more vulnerable to fundamentalist Islam. An isolated Turkey would not be a force for progress in the Middle East; instead, the Middle East could become a force for instability in Turkey. If so, Europe’s own security would undoubtedly be threatened. So whether or not Turkey eventually joins, the consequences are momentous.
article from Daily Telegraph 24 Sep 2009