International Papers

Turks at the Gates

Will the European Union allow Turkey to join?

Headlines across Europe covered the news that the executive body of the European Union has decided Turkey is now fit for official membership talks. Turkey has been working to join the European Union for years, and under conservative Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, it has gone through a painful process of legal and economic reform to make itself more acceptable to European arbiters. The EU decision is a big milestone and must be ratified by its 25 heads of state at a summit in December, but no countries are currently expected to turn Turkey down. If all goes well, Turkey might become a member in 10 or 15 years, say the Europeans. The recent decision came after weeks of brinksmanship between Brussels and Ankara, with Turkey’s Erdogan backing down over civil-code reforms.

The news attracted generally positive coverage in the United Kingdom but less sympathetic hearings on the continent, where Turkey’s reception is lukewarm at best. A Guardian leader pointed out that Turkey has wanted this for a long time: “President Kennedy was still alive, the cold war was at its height and Harold Macmillan was in Downing Street when Turkey was first told that it could hope one day to be accepted as part of Europe.” Ironically, it turned down an early chance to join alongside Greece in the late 1970s, a decision many have come to regret. As the Guardian pointed out, however, Turkey has come a long way for this. “Mr Erdogan’s conservative government has achieved a huge amount: banning torture, allowing Kurdish language broadcasts and weakening the grip of the military. Economic instability has given way to robust growth.”

Nevertheless, many Europeans question whether there should be a place for Turkey in the Union. French President Jacques Chirac announced that France would hold a referendum on the issue, an idea Erdogan quickly condemned. An article in Le Monde covered the two sides and quoted Erdogan’s response: “For now, something like a referendum is out of the question. The principles and conditions for EU membership or for starting the accession process are clear.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung put the anti-Turkey case bluntly, stating, “Turkey’s accession would destroy the European house as we know it,” and hinting broadly that the EU clubhouse is full: Europeans have always felt a kinship “even when they were at war with each other” that just doesn’t extend to the Turks. (Translation courtesy BBC Monitoring.)

The Turkish press reacted with equally mixed feelings. Many commentators welcomed the EU decision, but nearly everyone was tired of meeting EU criteria. One Milliyet columnist summed up general opinion when he wrote: “The negotiation process should be the same as other candidate members. We ask nothing more, and deserve nothing less.” (Translation courtesy Turkish Daily News.) Indeed, the sense that Turkey was getting singled out for biased treatment because of its Muslim majority angered many Turks. A columnist in the daily Zaman argued, “Winds of hate and anger from the wars that took place centuries ago are still blowing harshly.” The piece also suggested Turkey’s strong military could help the European Union, which “is always driven into a state of desperation and despair in any event, because it does not have a strong army.” Another Zaman piece gleefully quoted one Dutch EU commissioner saying, “What is the point of the 1683 victory [over the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna], if we allow Turkey join the EU?” Zaman pointed out that if opponents had to reach this far for an argument against Turkey’s accession, things couldn’t be all that bad.

An article in the London Telegraph expressed similar sentiments. It noted that the accession decision is huge for both Turkey and the European Union—with 71 million citizens, at its present rate of growth, Turkey would quickly constitute the largest state in the EU, and consequently one of its most powerful members. Negotiators are calling for an “emergency brake” in case Turkish workers flood EU job markets, along with possible permanent caps on Turkish emigration to other European countries. Nevertheless, the Telegraph gave the membership bickering a positive spin by suggesting European hesitation is just a smokescreen. The article quoted an unnamed EU diplomat saying, “If the price was throwing a few bones to the Islamophobes that don’t add up to anything, it’s worth paying.”