Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Should Europe cross the Bosporus?

As Pope Benedict XVI continues his 'contrition tour' in Turkey, the world has been attentively scrutinizing the visit. Will the pope’s visit help smooth over the anger created by his recent Islam-bashing? Will he be able to convince Orthodox leaders to unite with him in a holy alliance against European secularism? Will the pope change his stance on Turkey’s entry to the EU?

On this last question we already have an answer. Yesterday the pope told the Turkish prime minister that he gives his blessing to Turkey’s bid to join the EU. This is a complete about-face from his previous assertion that the EU should not admit an Islamic state. It's possible that without the PR nightmare created for the church by his recent comments, he would not have changed his tune.

It remains a difficult question. But first, a bit of history.

Turkey's formal application to join the European Community—the organisation that has since developed into the European Union—was made in 1987. Turkey has been a European Union (then the EEC) Associate Member since 1964. It was officially recognised as a candidate for membership in 1999 at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. Turkey started negotiations in 2005, a process that is likely to take at least a decade to complete. But the prospect for its accession has become the major area of controversy surrounding enlargement of the union, and the outcome will likely define what exactly the EU wants to be. Will it be simply a network of pro-business, anti-worker trade relationships? Or will it be a grand experiment seeking to create a new society out of the old world?

So why shouldn’t Turkey join? The first argument to be made against the idea is that it is culturally and historically not a part of Europe. Even from the date of the great split of the Roman Empire, When Byzantium (soon renamed Constantinople) became the seat of the new Byzantine Empire, the empire’s focus was toward Asia. Its holdings in Greece and the Balkans were quickly lost, and the empire held onto what was at the time the most valuable part of the former Roman empire, the east.

But even trying to use the eastern empire to connect Turkey to Europe historically is disingenuous, because the modern Turkish state is the truncated remnants of the Ottoman Empire, dissolved after World War I. When the Turks invaded Constantinople in 1453 (having come from Central Asia), ties with the West were cut. Ottoman control of Southeast Europe and Hungary was more of a tributary relationship, as this is generally how the empire worked. In reality there was little cultural or ethnic interchange.

On the other hand, one can make the argument that as a secular nation that uses a Latin alphabet and is ethnically distinct from the rest of the Middle East, Turkey is more culturally united to Europe than to its neighbours in the South. But these are merely surface facts that ignore a fundamental difference in cultural development and links, things which tie Turkey much more closely to the Middle East. The fact is most people do not consider Turkey to be part of Europe. That perception doesn’t come out of nowhere, and it isn’t just because it is a Muslim nation. Few would argue that Albania is not part of Europe, and yet that is a Muslim nation.

Even if you disagree with these cultural arguments, a bigger stumbling block could be Turkey's record on human rights, especially when it comes to press freedoms. Even in the recent past numerous journalists have been tried for the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” something actually codified in the law that carries a heft prison sentence. Though it is a secular democracy, it is kept that way through strict military control that often seems as if it's hanging by a thread. The military runs the show in Turkey just through the constant threat of the use of force. The Turkish army - powerful, conservative and fiercely secular - blocks the government from making modernizing reforms by constantly threatening a military coup.

The country has yet to admit to the Armenian Genocide it committed during World War I and continues to support a divided Cyprus, a country which is now an EU member state. There is still persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Kurds in the East. Turkey’s accession would mean the EU would share a border with Iran, Iraq and Syria.

But the biggest problem is demographic. If Turkey were to join the EU it would be the second most populous state after Germany and therefore have the second largest number of representatives in the European Parliament. And with its population exploding while old Europe’s shrinks, Turkey would by the time of accession be the most populous member of the EU and have the largest voting block. All of this for a country which technically has less than 3 percent of its territory in geographic Europe.

So what are the reasons there is such a clamour to let Turkey in? I would contend two of the main factors are big business interests and US political interests. Turkey’s population is booming and its economy is growing at a healthy rate. Opening up the border between it and its European neighbours would mean a huge new unblocked market for European goods floating in, and a huge wave of cheap labour pouring out.

So what’s the pope’s stake in all this? In reality, he could probably care less about the EU. After all, the EU has so far resisted the church’s demands that it enshrine its Christian heritage in its constitution, and if he's interested in the European project at all, the pope probably hopes the entity will remain a purely economic organisation of states. So what’s it to him if Turkey joins?

In any event, the decision about Turkey is going to fundamentally shape the kind of union the EU becomes. Is it going to be one culturally similar block that’s dedicated to shared values of human rights and social welfare? Or will it be a purely economic entity that keeps expanding in order to knock down trade barriers? The Turkey question is fundamental to the question of what kind of EU there should be.

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