Turkey, the EU and a love-hate relationship
“No more empty promises to Turkey,” a snickering Sarkozy says. The cartoon in daily Milliyet darkly panders to what most Turks feel these days are the European Union’s true intentions towards Turkey’s EU quest — no matter how many obstacles thrown at its wheels Turkey surmounts on the long and winding road to Brussels, it will ultimately be denied entry at the gates of the promised land .
A survey last weekend by Bahcesehir University in Istanbul showed that 80 percent of Turks believe that even if Ankara meets all political and economic requirements for EU accession, the EU will still not accept it as a member.
The study was published ahead of the June 4-7 European Parliament vote, in which Turkey’s bid to join the EU has become an election issue in some EU countries to the chagrin of the Turks, always sensitive about their self-image in the West .
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy of France have used the campaign trail to reiterate their opposition to Turkey’s full EU membership, saying Ankara instead should be given a “privileged partnership”; Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and his British counterpart David Miliband joined voices to stress the “strategic interest” of accepting Turkey into the bloc .
Election issues can be notoriously short-sighted, but at the heart of the debate is the very idea of Europe and where it should draw its borders as it strives to tackle new challenges such as globalisation, climate change, nuclear proliferation, energy dependency, the rise of China and other powers or security .
Is Turkey — a predominantly Muslim country of 72 million people with a per capita income of only one-third that of the 27-nation bloc — too poor and too culturally different to fit into the EU? Do “Little Europeans” from Paris to Berlin, aghast at the prospect of a EU bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria really want a fortress and “Christians-only” Europe? Can Europe afford losing Turkey?
Enlargement-fatigue and a Lisbon Treaty in intensive care have narrowed politicians’ sights, but the wider question over the future of Europe will not go away.
Ankara’s lack of progress in key areas such as clipping the power of the military and expanding freedom of expression since accession negotiations began in 2005 has consumed much of the debate of late. But again, what are four years in a country which has changed beyond recognition since the 1980s by throwing open its markets to foreign investors, shattering long-held taboos and democratically electing former Islamists as president and prime minister without witnessing a military coup?
Those who back Ankara’s full membership say Turkey has enormous benefits for the bloc — it is a secular democracy with a vibrant market economy, NATO’s second-largest army, a strategically positioned energy hub between the West and the East, and a rising regional power with bridges to the Muslim world .
Those against it shudder at its sheer size — by 2050 Turkey’s fast growing population will reach 100 million –, are troubled by its authoritarian ways, awed by its Islamic identity and horrified at its treatment of minorities and news of honour killings that feed the view of the “barbarian Turk” .
Turks insist that joining Europe is the culmination of founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s drive to modernise the country and say Europe without a city like Istanbul will never fully be Europe.
Brussels says banning Youtube, prosecuting Nobel laureate writer Orhan Pamuk for “insulting the Turkish nation” and meddlesome generals are incompatible with European values of tolerance, freedom and rule of law .
In any case, if Turkey is to join Europe — there are more than 80,000 pages of European laws and regulations before that happens — it would take decades rather than years. By then both Europe and Turkey will be quite different from what they are today. Sarkozy and Merkel will be long gone from the stage .
History of course carries its weight. After all, Ottoman Turks stormed twice as conquerors into Europe, hammering at the very gates of Vienna, and European powers occupied large parts of today’s Turkey after the collapse of the empire .
The survey by Bahcesehir University also highlighted Turkey’s own ambivalence toward Europe — aspiring to be a part of it but harbouring dark suspicions towards it as well .
Three out of four Turks believe the EU is trying to dismember Turkey and 81 percent believe the bloc’s goal is to spread Christianity. However, 57 percent said they wanted full EU membership for Turkey .
But again, can Turkey afford to lose Europe?