Turkey and the EU The Pros and Cons

Politicians in Europe have been bickering for months. Does Turkey belong in the European Union or doesn't it? Friday's decision in Brussels will go a long way toward answering that question, but with all the rhetoric, what, actually, are the arguments?

By Scott Lamb

The European Parliament approved the beginning of membership talks on Wednesday.

The European Parliament approved the beginning of membership talks on Wednesday.

Turkey has been on the European Union menu for years. Since 1959 when Turkey first applied to join what was then called the European Economic Community, Europe has been scratching its collective head over whether a mostly Muslim country that lies mostly outside the geographic borders of Europe actually belongs.

On Friday, an important decision on Turkey's EU path will be made. EU leaders are meeting in Brussels to answer this year's biggest political question: Should the contrary be officially invited to begin accession negotiations?

The discussion leading up to Friday's vote has been intense -- at times hysterical, at times acerbic and never less than passionate. While many EU leaders have expressed support for Turkey's full membership, a growing number of voices in Europe, notably the German opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) and other conservative parties across the continent, have been arguing against it, instead promoting the notion of a more limited "privileged partnership" -- an idea intended to keep Turkey at arms length in terms of immigration and EU power-sharing. Indeed, during Thursday's debate in the German Bundestag, CDU leader Angela Merkel even went so far as to say that Turkey's accession would be "a catastrophe."

But the cloud of rhetoric spewed out by both sides has frequently obscured the arguments behind the vitriol. What exactly are they?

Each side takes as its starting point a very different view of Turkey, and builds its arguments from there. Those supporting Turkey's membership generally look to the future, where they see the country as an asset to the EU -- a stabile, free-market economy with a large workforce. While supporters admit the country still has some way to go both economically and in terms of human rights, they recognize how much it has reformed in the last five years. And focus on how much it will likely continue progressing.

"In 10 years, Turkey won't be the same Turkey as today ... and certain fears that exist today can be put aside," said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, speaking to a French television station on Wednesday. Turkey's membership, he added, "would be very positive for Europe."

Former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein: "Too big, too poor, too different."

Former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein: "Too big, too poor, too different."

That, scream opponents, is rubbish. Turkey, they argue, brings the EU closer to unstable neighbors like Iraq and Syria -- a major liability. But it's the economic and cultural worries that really get the naysayers riled up. Turkey's weak economy, booming population -- currently at 70 million but growing quickly -- and the different values of the Muslim nation, critics say, put Turkey in conflict with the basic values of the EU.

In any case, say opponents, it is unlikely that, even if negotiations do start now, the EU will admit a country in ten years time that would immediately shift the balance of EU power to the East. In 10 or 20 years, it could be the biggest country in Europe -- and Europe isn't likely to want to give it so much power. In other words, as former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein put it, Turkey is "too big, to poor, too different."

When the two sides get down to specifics, four rough categories emerge:


First comes the favorite of politicians and polemics everywhere: Integration. Does Turkey fit into the club? The open border that would allow people to travel between Turkey and any other EU nation might not only lead to a massive immigration as people leave Turkey to look for jobs in the stronger economies of the West, but would allow Turkey to exert a huge cultural influence over Europe as well. In a recent poll by the Turkish Gallup Institute, 23 percent of Turkish workers asked said they would move to Western Europe countries if part of the EU. It's a horror scenario prophesized by populists across the continent: The head-on collision of Christian and Muslim values.

Fischer: "Turkey belongs to Europe."

Fischer: "Turkey belongs to Europe."

Yet it is exactly this integration, despite the difficulty, that is absolutely key, the other side argues. "We are not simply deciding about Turkey's entry today, we are deciding on the modernisation of Turkey," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in the Bundestag on Thursday. Turkish immigration would be introduced slowly and carefully, and the specter of a culture clash is nothing more than religious intolerance.


Security and Turkey's strategic placement bordering Syria, Iran, Iraq, Armenia and Georgia is the second main area of disagreement. Turkey, say supporters, could be a model for a modern Islamic democracy -- one which could influence other Muslim states into moving towards Western ideals. Turkish EU membership would become a bridge between the two cultures, and a proof that Europe isn't a club just for Christians. The security question also gets to one of the main points of the supporters' arguments: Turkey has a large and powerful military presence and would offer the EU a stronger presence in a geo-politically vital region.

Critics are sceptical about all of these claims, and say that having a shared border with nations like Iraq and Syria will put the EU directly in harm's way. They argue that because Turkey is already a member of NATO, the military relationship between Europe and Ankara won't change. Turkey is reviled in much of the Arab world, so goes the argument, so the 'bridge' and 'model' metaphors lack any real power.


Another area of disagreement is the cost. This, however, is hard to quantify; it is impossible to calculate exactly what the expense will be. Critics say Turkey's membership will cost more than all ten of the countries admitted in May combined. Europe can't afford it. They also add that the current customs union could be expanded under a privileged partnership arrangement to maximize benefits for both parties.

The pro-Turkey response is that Turkey's economy -- in contrast, incidentally, to many of the more established EU states -- is growing rapidly. Indeed, some economists say it's the only country that will make a long-term growth contribution to Europe and it will provide excellent opportunities for investment. In any case, they say, Turkey is no worse off now than Portugal was when it was first admitted -- and Portugal has boomed since -- and has a per capita income above both Bulgaria and Romania, countries that are close to completing accession negotiations for entry in 2007.


Finally comes the question of geography. The majority of Turkey's 810,000 square kilometers lie in Asia, but parts of it, including the mega-city Istanbul, are on the European side of the Bosporus Straight. That, say opponents, isn't enough to qualify. Turkey has never been an important part of Europe physically, they argue, and including it will rob the geographic notion of the EU of any real meaning.

"Who cares?" asks the pro camp. Turkey has always played a major -- if not necessarily always positive -- role on European continent. After all, if Cyprus -- which is closer to Syria than it is to any current EU state -- can be in the EU, geography alone is no reason to deny Turkey full membership.

Meanwhile, there is still the European Union itself to worry about. And that, says German parliament member Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg from the conservative CSU party, needs to be addressed: "We are talking a lot about Turkey's readiness, but really it's the readiness of the EU that we need to be talking about, the readiness of Europe to embrace Turkey in the way they expect to be embraced." This is not just a question of Europe's current readiness. "As soon as we start negation talks," he said, "all concentration will focus on Turkey. But we need that energy in other areas, too, like Romania and Bulgaria."


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