Who's Afraid of Turkey?

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Who's Afraid of Turkey?

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The EU summit conference held in mid-December in the Danish capital of Copenhagen produced an agreement between the European Union and 10 countries seeking EU membership. On May 1, 2004, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia will become full members of the EU. For Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, the conference was a historic occasion for the EU. “This is the reunification of Europe,” Michel told reporters after the agreement was finalized.

The Copenhagen summit was indeed noteworthy. The 10 new member countries represent the single largest addition to EU membership in EU history and produce an increase in the EU’s surface area of approximately 30 percent. As of May 1, 2004, the EU will comprise nearly 500 million people in 25 countries, a population roughly 60 percent larger than that of the United States.

One country, however, was disappointed by the summit: Turkey. It has had “associated” status since 1963 and first applied for full membership in 1987. Membership has been denied since then because of Turkey’s occasionally unstable political system and human rights record, which were deemed incompatible with European standards.

There is also concern about the cost of Turkish membership. Admitting 10 new nations next year with a combined population of 75 million will cost an estimated 40 billion euros (over $40 billion). A poorer Turkey with a population of 70 million could cost other member nations much more.

However, the EU indicated its willingness to decide on starting official membership negotiations with Turkey by the end of 2004, provided Turkey continues its internal reform process. For example, within the last two years Turkey announced that it would no longer carry out the death penalty, one of the prerequisites for membership negotiations with the EU.

Turkey had hoped for a firm commitment on receiving official candidate status and starting membership negotiations. Understandably, the Turkish government was disappointed, and Danish television reported that Turkey’s new prime minister, Abdullah Gül, initially termed the EU offer “unacceptable,” but later indicated that his government would continue the reform process.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was reported to have pushed for a more positive statement concerning the possibility of Turkish membership. Italy and Spain also support a higher priority treatment of Turkey’s request to become part of the EU.

Opposition to Turkish membership

Before the summit, concerns were voiced in France and Germany about admitting Turkey as a full member of the EU. A month before the summit former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing rejected membership for Turkey in an interview with the French daily Le Monde. According to Giscard, Turkish membership would mean “the end of the European Union” (Nov. 15, 2002).

In the interview, Giscard characterized Turkey as a country with close ties to Europe, but not a true European country. “The Turkish capital [Ankara] is not in Europe and 95 percent of the Turkish population lives outside of Europe,” Giscard stated. He also summarized one of the main concerns that many in Germany have about Turkey’s bid for EU membership: Turkey has “another culture, a different approach and a different way of life.”

Giscard also emphasized some of the practical considerations that Turkish membership would involve. Turkey’s population is approaching that of Germany, which is currently the EU’s most populous nation. It has a surface area larger than the EU’s largest member state (France). Should it become a full member of the EU, Turkey would immediately have the second largest delegation of representatives at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Turkish population growth is a concern for many in the EU. Turkey had less than 40 million inhabitants in 1963, when it was granted associated status with the EU. This year Turkish population is expected to reach 70 million, and if the current birth rate is sustained, by the middle of the century, Turkey could have as many people as France and Germany combined.

In an article published in the prestigious German weekly newspaper Die Zeit the same week as the Copenhagen summit, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt echoed Giscard’s comments. Like Giscard, Schmidt supports close ties with Turkey and its economic development. In his opinion, however, EU membership for Ankara “would mean full freedom of movement for Turkish citizens and make the urgent need for the integration of Turks and Kurds living in Germany a lost cause.”

With more than 3 million Turks already living in both France and Germany, full EU membership for Turkey would only mean more Turkish migration to more prosperous EU countries, especially in view of expected population growth in Turkey in this century.

Like Giscard, Helmut Schmidt sees Turkish EU membership as an “opening of the door for a similarly plausible full membership for other Islamic countries in Africa and the Middle East.” The result, according to Schmidt, would be the eventual demise of the EU as a political union to becoming merely a free trade zone.

Schmidt’s statement on Turkish EU membership came only five weeks after the Christian Socialist Union’s (CSU) party convention. The CSU became the first political party represented in Germany’s Bundestag to declare its opposition to Turkish membership in the EU. Edmund Stoiber, the CSU party chairman and unsuccessful candidate for chancellor in September’s national election, announced the party’s position, which was approved unanimously by the party delegates.

The chairman of the larger Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel, who attended the CSU convention as a guest, voiced her party’s support for the decision. Like Giscard, Schmidt and Stoiber, Merkel is in favor of good relations with Turkey, but not as an EU member.

The CSU’s announcement is a clever populist move, since many Germans are concerned about the possibility of Turkish membership in the EU. Stoiber has put German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a difficult position. Schroeder has been pressured by the United States to support accelerated negotiations for Turkish EU membership. Stoiber’s move is a role reversal of the recent election campaign, when Schroeder caught the CDU/CSU opposition off-guard with his “no blood for oil” proclamation concerning possible German participation in a war against Iraq.

Will EU remain a “Christian club”?

The clear position taken by Germany’s main opposition parties seems predestined to revive a claim made by former Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz. During a visit to Washington in December 1997 to seek support for his country’s bid for EU membership, Yilmaz accused former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl of wanting to make the EU into a “Christian club.” Kohl had said earlier that the EU was founded on Christian principles, a statement that Yilmaz interpreted as intended for his country with its Muslim population.

In their comments on Turkey’s bid for EU membership, all of the European politicians and senior statesmen cited differing values and ways of life. None, however, stated it so clearly as Helmut Schmidt:

“Thanks to the church and the crusades, most Europeans since the Middle Ages have grown up with a hostile rejection of Islam. And from the Islamic side admonitions for religious tolerance occur with scarcity. Islam lacks the developmental influences of the renaissance, the enlightenment and the separation of spiritual and political authority, which are so decisive for European culture. For that reason Islam was not able to gain a foothold in Europe, despite 500 years of Ottoman expansion… For several decades many Muslims have been living in Europe… but to date integration or even assimilation have not really been successful anywhere” ( Die Zeit, No. 50, 2002).

Will the dividing line between Christianity and Islam also be the delineation between Europe and the Middle East? If so, Turkey’s bid for EU membership will ultimately be unsuccessful.

A recent election in Turkey emphasized this Islamic connection. Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1924 the country has charted an officially secular course. But recent elections brought victory to Islamic fundamentalists. Although the constitution prohibits them from pursuing overtly religious policies in the secular state, nevertheless voter sympathy is increasingly with religious conservatives, as it is in many Muslim nations.

At the turn of the 20th century the Turks ruled over most of the Arab world. Could the recent revival of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey mean that the Turks and the Arabs will once again be united through their common allegiance to Islam? The outcome of the crisis that centers on its southern neighbor Iraq will probably determine the answer to this question. WNP

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