Turkey in the EU

13 December 2004

Turkey in the EU?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I am absolutely in favour of Turkey’s membership in the European Union,” said Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski in September. “We will support it. But — if we say yes’ to Turkey — it is a question then what we will say to Ukraine.”

The EU probably will say “yes” to starting negotiations for Turkish membership at its summit meeting in Brussels on 17 December, although it could be ten years or longer before Turkey is actually a member. Ukraine is not even a candidate yet, and has not begun the lengthy process of reform that would be needed to bring its laws and practices into conformity with EU human rights standards. But it is Turkey that faces the higher hurdles.

President John F. Kennedy was still alive when Turkey was first promised EU membership some forty years ago. Since then the EU has expanded from six to twenty-five members, with three more scheduled for entry in 2007 (including two, Romania and Bulgaria, with a lower per capita income than Turkey). The reason that Turkey is still at the end of the queue is not its relative poverty (though that is an issue), but its location, its size, and — above all — its religion.

Turkish membership would give the EU borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, and make it a major power in the Middle East. Turkey would be the biggest country in the EU (its population, now 71 million, will overtake Germany’s within ten years), and since most EU decision-making is weighted by population, that would give it a huge voice in the EU’s affairs. Above all, it would kill the notion of “Europe” as a Christian club.

Add, say, eighty million Turks to the twenty million Muslims who already live in various EU member states, and an EU that includes Turkey would be an entity whose population is about 20 percent Muslim. This has prompted bigots like former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing to warn that Turkey’s membership would mean “the end of Europe,” but such voices are in the minority.

More representative of mainstream official opinion in the EU is French President Jacques Chirac’s comment that “We have an interest in having Turkey with us,” or the Advisory Council on International Affairs’s September report to the Dutch government that “Admitting a Muslim country may be new to the EU, but it does not differ in principle from earlier expansions. One way or another, Islam should gain a place within the EU….”

So far, so good, but the problem until recently was that Turkey simply wasn’t a sufficiently democratic country to meet the EU’s standards. As Britain’s Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, put it in October:: “The process of the entry negotiations should promote as radical a reform process as that initiated by Ataturk.”

An immense amount has already been accomplished on this front in the past two years. After a decade of political turmoil and deadlock, the Turks elected a government in November, 2002 with a large majority in parliament and a clear mandate for change. The new governing party was, remarkably, an “Islamic” party whose predecessors had once been seen as opposed to the whole secular republic founded eighty years ago by Ataturk.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, however, the Justice and Development (AK) Party repackaged themselves as “Muslim Democrats” along the lines of Europe’s many “Christian Democratic” parties, and proceeded to remake the whole Turkish state in order to fit it for EU membership. In only two years, Erdogan’s government has rewritten a fifth of the constitution, ending the death penalty, bringing the army decisively under civil authority, granting language rights to the Kurdish minority and entrenching European standards of free speech in Turkish law.

Abuse and torture of prisoners in Turkish jails is one area where more work is needed (though the government is clearly trying), and there is a continuous tension between the AK party leadership’s Europeanising intentions and its conservative religious base over questions having to do with women’s rights and family law.

Nevertheless, enough progress has already been made that in October the European Commission declared that Turkey had met the political and economic conditions to be considered for EU membership.

What remains is the political decision to open negotiations, which must be taken unanimously by the governments of the 25 existing EU members. The Turks have been promised an answer, they have worked themselves to the bone to meet the conditions, and it looks like they will get the right answer. There is great anxiety about Tuskish entry at the popular level in a number of European countries, but the governments are mostly taking the longer view, and in some cases showing considerable political courage in doing so. (Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has consistently backed Turkish entry despite the German public’s clear opposition to it, for example.)

The wheels could still fall off this vehicle at the last minute –Austria, Cyprus and the Netherlands are the three governments that people most worry about — but it appears that Turkey will get the green light for opening membership negotiations in Brussels this week.

As Yusuf Kanli remarked in the Turkish Daily News when the European Commission gave its approval in October: “What we got is just a conditional green light to start a journey on a road on which for some reason many red lights were erected with great skill.” But it’s a start — and no country that ever started membership talks has failed to join the EU in the end.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“President –religion”; and “Abuse — membership”)