TCS Daily

Let's Talk Turkey

By Craig Winneker - October 5, 2004 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- This week the European Commission issues its long-awaited recommendation on whether to launch accession negotiations with Turkey. It has been a tough road for Ankara to get this far. Turkey first applied for membership in the European Community more than 40 years ago. It has been something of a wallflower ever since, as the EU has expanded to include 25 nations and made plans to include at least three more before letting Turkey into the club.

But Turkey's time has finally come...sort of. The Commission will recommend that formal accession talks begin with Ankara, but will also warn it that much work needs to be done on improving its human rights record before the membership prize can be obtained. Based on the report, EU member states will make the final decision at a summit later this year on whether to launch negotiations. When could Turkey join? Not until 2015, or even 2020.

In recent weeks the debate over Turkish EU accession has undergone something of a seismic shift, from simply a discussion of whether the country has fulfilled the necessary basic criteria for joining (being a democracy, respecting human rights and the rule of law, abolishing the death penalty, etc.) to a more philosophical examination of what it will mean when this overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 70 million joins. We've moved from arguing whether Turkey can join the EU to whether it should join.

Geographical nitpicking aside, is Turkey really part of Europe? It's a difficult question to answer. I have been to Istanbul and found it to be more "western" than Brussels: its citizens are more chic and self-confident, it has more functioning ATMs, and it has more than one Dunkin Donuts (Brussels has few of the former and none of the latter). Other than a brief stop on the Asian side of the Bosporus, I have not been to the rest of Turkey; but friends tell me that outside of a few major cities, the country is, well, not very European at all.

But to be fair, I'm not sure a real definition of "Europe" exists -- even in what is now commonly accepted to be Europe. In the new EU of 25, there is probably as much similarity between a Finn and a Sicilian as there is between an Austrian and a Turk.

Does it even matter? Apparently so. Because now that the enlargement of the EU to include Turkey is looking more and more certain, some of the continent's most eminent figures have started to question the wisdom of letting it in. It started with former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing wondering aloud whether Turkey should be able to join what has traditionally been a Christian club. Then there were offhand remarks from Commissioners Frits Bolkestein (who invoked the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna -- always a crowd-pleaser) and Franz Fischler. There has even been talk of granting Turkey "special status" or placing restrictions on its entry. Turks, needless to say, absolutely refuse to be admitted to the Union as second-class citizens.

France, which didn't see fit to hold a referendum on the introduction of the euro or on any of the previous rounds of EU enlargement, suddenly has a raging case of democratic fever. President Jacques Chirac has announced the country will hold referendums on the proposed EU constitution and on future enlargement, but not on the next round, which will include Bulgaria, Romania and possibly Croatia. In other words, he wants to put the Turkish question to a vote. A referendum may allow the French government an escape hatch on the issue: recent polls showed 56 percent of French citizens are opposed to Turkish entry with only 36 percent in favor. But in a country with anywhere between 5 and 10 million Muslims, simple majority rule on this particular ballot measure may prove incendiary.

There may be another, more trivial reason for Europe's sudden attack of cold feet when it comes to Turkish accession: the US is in favor of it. True, the Bush Administration supports Ankara's bid to join the EU almost entirely for strategic -- some might even say cynical -- reasons. It certainly isn't out of any real concern about how Brussels handles its affairs or for some sudden interest in the Grand European Project. It's got more to do with Washington being seen to promote democracy in a Muslim nation -- and, as a bonus, extending the EU right up to the Iraqi border.

A new Transatlantic Trends poll shows that while the US -- or at least its government and military leaders -- may have warm affection for Turkey, the feeling is definitely not mutual. Support in Turkey for US policies is abysmal. In fact, Turkish respondents to the survey (sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and conducted by EOS Gallup Europe) had a significantly more favorable view of countries such as North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia than they do of the United States. (If it's any consolation, they don't like France very much, either).

Perhaps this isn't so surprising given the current reaction in the Muslim world to the worsening situation in Iraq. Even less shocking is the finding that Turks overwhelmingly see the European Union as more critical to their future than the US, its traditional NATO ally. Some 70 percent of the respondents said that the EU is of critical importance to achieving Turkey's vital interests, while only 6 percent said the same of the US. Turks overwhelmingly want the EU. The question now is whether the EU really wants them.


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