Turkey Isn’t Getting In

Of all the temptations of journalism, prediction is the most dangerous. Soothsayers in our trade are usually made to look foolish by events. The best answer was given by the fabled correspondent in some distant spot who, asked by an importunate foreign desk (in the days of abbreviated cablese) to file "soonest, fullest, what next happens", responded succinctly: "Myballs uncrystal." After that, let me say something simply and confidently: Turkey is not going to join the EU. "Not" does not mean "never", but in any foreseeable future, although you wouldn’t know that from Tony Blair. He visited Turkey last Friday at the beginning of his latest forlorn, not to say fantastical mission to bring peace to the Middle East, intoning the words: "It is important that we continue the process of accession with Turkey." Nor would you know it from other exalted Euro-personages. Chancellor Angela Merkel has just joined the Social Democrats, her German coalition partners, in saying that full membership "would be worthwhile", one fine day. Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, whose country’s EU presidency is coming to an end, says "the door is still open", while Carl Bildt, the foreign minister, continues ardently to favor Turkish membership. All these pious hopes are expressed at the very moment negotiations between Turkey and the EU have hit one more pothole, with Brussels suspending talks as a punishment for Ankara’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cyprus. This suspension was a "serious mistake", Blair says, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, calls it "unacceptable". By now the Turks should have learned that there is much they must accept, whether they like it or not, and they have come to feel, not without reason, that when one obstacle is surmounted, Europe will always find another. Turkey became an associate member of the EEC or Common Market as long ago as 1963, and in 1987 it applied for full membership of the EU. During the lengthy interlude came the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and in 1983 the creation of a Turkish Cypriot state, which no one but Ankara recognizes. Turkey has a much better case over Cyprus than in other matters, and the despicable behavior of the Greek Cypriot government –and electorate, when it voted against the reunification of the island once EU membership could not be revoked – has made Cyprus the least loved member state of the EU. More serious objections are the patchy Turkish record (to put it mildly) on human rights. Turkey still does not enjoy what European countries consider a true rule of law or freedom of speech and has not come to terms with its history, notably the fate of the Armenia’s. Even then, the continual European hesitancy and changing of the tune might suggest bad faith. But that is not really so. A better way of seeing it is as a kind of social embarrassment. Far from having embarked on an elaborate deception, Europe said something with good intentions but without thinking it through properly, only to recognize slowly how grave the practical difficulties are. As a result Turkey waits for church bells that never ring, while Europe, as one French diplomat puts it, is like a man with a mistress he doesn’t want to lose but doesn’t want to marry, either. The trouble is that a moment passes, after which it’s no longer easy or even possible to say this thing can work without causing pain. For their part, the worst mistake the Turks have made is invoking US support. During yet another crisis between Ankara and Brussels a little more than a year ago, Erdogan rang Condoleezza Rice and asked for her help. The secretary of state responded by expressing yet again Washington’s ardent support for Turkish admission to the EU, thereby further enraging the Europeans. As usual Blair takes the American line, arguing for Turkish admission on strategic grounds: it "has an importance not just in respect to Turkey but with wider relationships between the West and the Muslim world". Shutting the door will alienate Muslims everywhere; letting Turkey in will build a bridge between the West and the Islamic world. But another way of putting it is that Europe is being asked to make a huge sacrifice to gratify American strategic interests. Whatever Blair may think, this doesn’t meet with universal favor. As the former European commissioner Chris Patten has said sarcastically, it is good of the Americans to keep offering Turkey admission to the EU, but this is a question on which Europeans might want to have some say themselves. Neither Blair nor his American friends have noticed that there has scarcely been a less propitious moment for Turkish admission in these 40 years. Turkish sensitivity about being excluded from a "Christian club" is quite misplaced: Europe today isn’t a Christian anything. Even fear of radical Islamism is not the main factor. More important is the hangover from previous EU expansion. The Turkish question also illustrates the gulf between "the soi-disant elites", as that contrarian French politician Jean-Pierre Chevnement calls them, personified by Blair, Tuomioja and Bildt, and the actual peoples of Europe. In May 2004 eastern European countries that had been sundered from their neighbors by 60 years of war and cold war were admitted to "our common European home", and very moving it was. After the elation Europe woke up to realize that its 10 new member states now comprised a quarter of its population while providing a 20th of its economic product, and that’s before Romania and Bulgaria join in the new year, let alone Turkey, with a per-capita income one-tenth of the British and a child mortality rate 10 times the French. A year later the French and Dutch referendums, which turned down the new EU constitution, were a hostile response to that expansion and by implication to Turkish admission. Building bridges between the West and Islam and sapping the roots of terrorism are doubtless worthy objectives, but since when did they become the purpose of the EU? In the end the problem is less cultural or economic or religious than simply geographical. This is something we have only slowly woken up to, but it explains why Turkey will not join for a very long time, if ever. Bildt says "there is no doubt that Turkey is a part of Europe", but a French politician has put it another way: can we really have a Europe that extends to the borders of Iraq? Many ordinary Europeans seem to know the answer to that better than their rulers.


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