International Papers

Talking Turkey

Will the European Union ever let a Muslim nation join their club?

A fierce debate erupted in the European press this week over the touchy topic of Turkey joining the European Union. Although Turkish accession would not take place for at least another decade—if ever—the issue surfaced because next week the European Commission will issue a report on whether Brussels should even begin discussing the subject with Ankara. The EU executive is expected to answer in the affirmative—but a last-minute hitch over a proposed anti-adultery law in Turkey sent the pundits into overdrive.

A key requirement for the European Union to begin negotiations over eventual terms for Turkey’s entry is the reform of the country’s penal code. Over 25 years after Midnight Express made Turkophiles everywhere fume, the nation’s human rights record, especially concerning its treatment of prisoners, is still a lightning rod for critics. In Ankara, parliament was set to pass a law reforming the country’s penal code, but it delayed passage at the last minute in order to include a clause that would outlaw adultery. That wouldn’t fly, Brussels said flatly. After a visit to Brussels, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had earlier supported the clause, did an about-face. Upon his return, Erdogan reconvened parliament, which passed the reform law in an emergency session without the anti-adultery clause. (Erdogan’s party is ostensibly Islamist, but by making EU entry a top priority since coming to power in 2002, it has been largely successful in quieting critics who feared it would to erode the secular foundation of the Turkish republic. It’s worth noting that several American states would also fail to qualify for EU entry negotiations due to laws that ban adultery.)

The press, much like the European public and its leading politicians, is sharply divided over the question of Turkish EU entry. Many fear that Muslim Turkey would undermine Europe’s commitment to secularism. French President Jacques Chirac supports Turkey’s bid to join the club, but most of his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, does not. Chirac now appears to have cast his lot with his popular finance minister and possible successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who says the French people would need to decide in a referendum whether to admit Turkey. If such a vote were held today, it would almost certainly fail. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin took an ambivalent stance, asking in a widely quoted interview with Wall Street Journal Europe, “Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?”

Among the papers most opposed to Turkish membership is Germany’s conservative Die Welt. “Turkey is not part of Europe,” the paper stated bluntly, marking one of the few times the paper, generally supportive of U.S. foreign policy, has openly disagreed with Washington, which wants Turkey, a NATO ally, to join. Die Welt listed “10 arguments against Turkey’s accession to the European Union,” including the country’s human rights record, a feared influx of migrants, the high cost of enlargement, and security concerns. Over in France, Le Figarosaid the United States favors Turkish EU membership because it would be the surest way of destroying the union. (German translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring; French translation courtesy of Deutsche Welle radio.)

In Vienna, on the other hand, multiple Ottoman sieges appear not to have left a chip on the Austrian shoulder. Initially lukewarm, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel has since voiced qualified support for negotiations, a view seen as “sensible” by Der Standard. The paper, a proponent of Turkish accession, argued that Erdogan’s apparent change of heart regarding the anti-adultery clause showed “a clear sign of Turkey’s great willingness to adapt itself to the European Union.” Nobody’s perfect, the paper seemed to say, pointing out that Austria itself did not fulfill all the EU’s requirements prior to the start of its entry negotiations.

Spain’s El País declared that the decision on adultery is evidence of “the European Union’s power to further the democratization of those seeking to join it.” Let’s not give ourselves all the credit, France’s Le Monde cautioned. The paper said EU influence played a strong role in the rejection of the adultery law but noted that the decision also “illustrates the growing power of [Turkish] civil society, especially of feminist organizations who sounded the alarm to prevent such an article becoming law.” (German, Spanish, and French translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Other papers, however, sensed more sinister—or at the very least, Machiavellian—motives behind what they construed as a deliberate feint by Erdogan. Süddeutsche Zeitung was gobsmacked. Europeans are “rubbing their eyes in disbelief,” the paper wrote. “By stoking national resentment against Europe,” the paper said, “[Erdogan] has demonstrated what Turkey-skeptics believe they already know: that the big country on the Bosphorus is simply not ready to join the club.” Similarly, Switzerland’s Tages-Anzeiger wondered if Erdogan had made a calculated effort to force his own party to bend to Europeans’ secular will. (German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring  and Deutsche Welle.)