December 16, 2004

December 16, 2004 | Commentary on

Talking Turkey

How do countries and people choose their destinies? Hegelians tend to believe historical forces manipulate them. Conservatives tend to see the hand of one extraordinary individual. In the case of the secular path traveled by Turkey in the 20th century, the influence of one man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923, remains as strong as ever. Part of that progressive drive towards a secular, modern state has been Turkey's long standing application to join the European Union.

On Friday, leaders of the European Union will meet to decide whether to open membership negotiations with Turkey in 2005. It could be the end of the beginning for Turkey's long, patient quest to join Europe's club of the rich. Importantly, in October, the European Commission gave qualified approval to Turkish entry. Turkey has earned its membership.

But plenty of unease and unwillingness persists in Europe. Already 15 million Muslims live in the European Union; of them, 3.5 million are Turks. The addition of Turkey itself makes Europeans blanch. With a growing population of 70 million, Turkey could soon be the largest member of the Union, as well as the poorest.

While the majority of Europe's political elite has finally conceded that Turkey must be allowed to join, popular sentiment is vehemently hostile. There is strong opposition in France and Austria. Denmark is doubtful, and Germany's Christian Democrats have stated flatly that if they are returned to power, Turkish membership is off. They would offer a weaker form of partnership.

The Turkish problem can be couched in terms of European angst over immigration and existential fears of losing Europe's identity in a Muslim melting pot. Most Turks, however, have long known where they want to belong. Turkey first applied to the EU in 1959, and in 1963 obtained an association agreement with the then European Community. It has been knocking on the door ever since.

Waiting in Europe's anteroom, Turks have seen many others push ahead of them in line and win full membership: Britain, Ireland, Denmark in the 1970s; then Greece, Spain and Portugal; followed by Austria, Finland and Sweden in the 1990s. Ten more countries in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe joined in May. Romania and Bulgaria are soon to follow. Ukraine could assume a western orientation and also move ahead of Turkey - as could Balkan countries like Croatia.

Understandably, Turks find this insulting and unfair. "Turkey is being held to stricter criteria than other candidates," complained Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this weekend. "We have done all the Europeans have asked of us, and still they hesitate," he told a German newspaper.

He has a point. Under Mr. Erdogan, whose party won elections in 2002, Turkey has made vast strides towards fulfilling the EU's "Copenhagen criteria," which require candidate countries to be fully functioning free market democracies. Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues may be unlikely reformers, since they hail from an anti-European, Islamist political background, but they have done the job.

If Europeans spurn these efforts, many Turks believe, it is because they have failed to resolve what the European Union itself stands for. "If the European Union stands for democracy, human rights, diversity and tolerance, as it says it does, a restricted definition of its identity based on religion, race and geography would negate those fundamental principles," writes Professor Ahmet K. Han in the fall issue of European Affairs magazine.

Meanwhile, Turkey has made great economic strides. While Turkey in 1963 had a per capita Gross Domestic product of $200, the equivalent figure today is $3,300. It is emerging as a modern manufacturing economy, more than agrarian. Already over 50 percent of its exports go to Europe. Turkish workers help to maintain the labor base for European's welfare states, whose populations will continue to shrink in decades to come.

And as Turks and their supporters, mainly in the United States and Britain, like to point out, nothing would enhance the European Union's strategic relevance more than Turkish membership. As a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and Central Asia, Turkey should be an enormous asset to geopolitically ambitious European leaders.

Still, even if Europe were to reject Turkey's overtures, the country is unlikely to veer off in a completely different direction -- Muslim fundamentalist, for instance. Turkey's deep-seated secular traditions, its democracy and its long interaction with Europe, as Mr. Han remarks, have made it very different from the Arab Muslim states. "Its destiny lies with Europe." Europeans should realize this as well.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail:
helle.dale@heritage.org .

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times