State of the union

Turkey’s entry into the European Union (EU) has been a topic long discussed among international observers. Owing to a decision made following talks in December, this stands as a real possibility. Yet formal negotiations for Turkey’s accession will not begin until October and could take up to ten years. There exist considerable hurdles to clear before the process is completed. Nevertheless, the decision is—as Chancellor Schroeder remarked—one of ‘immense implications’. 

Turkey’s accession enjoys the backing of the larger member states. Germany, Spain, Italy and France all support Turkey’s entry. Supporters of accession argue that embracing Turkey would show the EU to be inclusive and tolerant of other religions, dispelling the charge that it is a ‘club of Christians’. On strategic grounds they argue that Turkey is essential to Europe. Turkey is seen as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. By bringing Turkey into the fold the EU can help the country become a successful Muslim democracy, strengthen an ally in the fight against terrorism and prove—as Prime Minister Blair put it—‘there is no fundamental clash of civilisations’.

It is no surprise that the US is sympathetic to such arguments. President Bush even went as far as commenting, at a NATO summit in Istanbul, that Turkey ‘ought to be given a date by the EU for [its] eventual acceptance’.

Opponents of accession—including Austria, Denmark and Cyprus—argue that Turkey is too big, too different and too poor. They worry that in admitting Turkey the EU is overstretching and will detract from the more important task of consolidation. (Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing remarked in 2002 that accession would spell ‘the end of the European Union’). Rather than admission, this group suggest a ‘privileged partnership’ as a more viable alternative. This would allow closer economic and security links without the pitfalls inherent in accession.

This issue has interesting implications. In many ways, the future direction of the EU hinges on Turkey’s admission. Is it to become an inclusive and increasingly larger union? Alternatively, the EU may decide that the risks apparent are too great, that it should concentrate on integrating existing member states, strengthening EU institutions and addressing the considerable democratic deficit that already exists. What seems certain is that the offer of a ‘privileged partnership’ would be rejected. (Prime Minister Erdogan has said he will reject anything short of full membership). Having had its 1987 application rejected, while watching former communist-bloc nations ‘jump the queue’, another rejection would be demeaning to Turkey, as President Chirac has indicated. That raises some important questions. To what extent has Turkey’s membership been overlooked due to its Islamic heritage? Will Turkey be overlooked again for this reason? For all its talk of inclusiveness, does the EU have a fundamental bias towards different cultures?

And to what extent is Europe’s Christian heritage important for cohesiveness? How these questions regarding Turkey’s membership unfold will be indicative of the EU’s future direction. What is certain is that the ensuing period will be significant, with substantial implications for all involved. Watch this space.



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