Turkey in Europe

5 December 2002

Turkey in Europe

By Gwynne Dyer

It was Valery Giscard d’Estaing, former president of France and now head of the convention on the constitutional future of Europe, who broke the long, embarrassed silence in early November. Turkey, he said, is “not a European country.” It has “a different culture, a different approach, and a different way of life,” and its admission would mean “the end of the European Union.” What he meant was that Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, though officially a secular one.

Once Giscard had spoken the unspeakable, other old, white, conservative, Catholic men leapt into the fray. First out was the Pope, who warned that in shaping Europe’s future the continent’s “religious heritage” should not be forgotten. Then Germany’s opposition leader, Edmund Stoiber, declared that “(Europe’s) borders must be based on shared values, culture and history. Turkey’s membership would breach those borders.” And former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine warned that if the EU did not draw the line at Turkey, “we will end up with a union of 40 countries, including Russia, the Ukraine, Turkey, the Balkan states and north Africa.”

To which one is tempted to reply “yes, and your problem is…?” Such a 40-country union would merely restore a zone of peace, common law and shared citizenship over most of the territories that enjoyed the same benefits as provinces of the Roman empire two thousand years ago. But Europe’s pro-expansion leaders confined themselves to more specific replies.

Turkey “absolutely has its place in Europe,” said French President Jacques Chirac, implicitly rebuking his predecessor. “Turkey is a European country that has every right to join if it meets the conditions,” said a British government spokesperson. Gerhard Schroeder, the German Chancellor, declared that “the real question now is to decide a date, not for Turkey’s accession to the EU, but for the start of entry talks.” But it is a highly contentious issue in Europe, and the Turks want that date to be set next week, at the EU summit in Copenhagen on 12 December.

There is not one hurdle to be cleared at Copenhagen, but three. Extending formal invitations to ten countries to join the EU in 2004 (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Malta and Cyprus), and two more in 2007 (Romania and Bulgaria), is actually the easiest part. Of the Class of 2004, only Poland is of serious economic import — its 40 million people outnumber the other nine candidates’ populations taken together — and while talks on the rights of Polish farmers will go down to the wire, final success is assured.

The second hurdle is getting a peace deal on Cyprus before it joins. The island has been partitioned between its Greek-speaking majority and its Turkish-speaking minority for a generation. Both mother countries, Greece and Turkey, are now eager for an arrangement that creates a reunited Cyprus of two largely self-governing linguistic communities, more or less along the lines of Belgium, but time to settle the details of the deal is desperately short. And then there is the question of Turkey itself.

Turkey already has 66 million people, and it is growing fast. If it joins, by 2020 it would be the EU’s biggest country, outnumbering even the Germans, so letting it in would have a big impact on the EU’s identity even if the Turks were not Muslims. The original promise that it would eventually become a candidate for membership is forty years old, and it has been an official candidate since 1999, but many Europeans never realised that the promise might one day have to be kept. That day has arrived.

Over the past year, Turkey has carried out drastic legal reforms that remove most of the human rights obstacles to its membership. It abolished the death penalty, legalised Kurdish-language broadcasting and schools, and ended legal curbs on press freedom. And it has now elected a government of ‘Muslim democrats’ who look like they might hold the key to reconciling the traditionally reactionary force of political Islam with modernity and democracy.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), puts great importance on getting a date for the start of Turkish entry talks. “We don’t see the EU as a club of Christians and we don’t want to see it as a club of Christians, but if we can’t get a date from Copenhagen, suspicions will emerge. It is very important to prove that the culture of Islam and democracy can indeed co-exist and be in harmony.”

When the AKP talk about being ‘Muslim democrats’, they are consciously modelling themselves on the ‘Christian democrats’ who emerged in Western Europe after 1945. The point about those Christian Democrats is that they replaced the reactionary, anti-modern, Church-dominated parties of the pre-war era (some of which did not shrink from alliances with fascists) with the tolerant, lay-run Christian parties of today who have successfully reconciled religious faith and a commitment to a secular democratic system.

This is exactly what the Muslim Middle East needs as well, and it would be criminal not to encourage the phenomenon when it appears in the country that has been the traditional bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Letting Turkey join Europe would certainly be a leap of faith for the current members — it would give the EU common borders with Iraq and Iran — but it would also be a leap in the right direction. After all, in classical times what we now call ‘Europe’ and ‘the Middle East’ were part of the same broad culture. They could be again.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Once…replies”)