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Should Turkey Join Europe?

This article is kindly reprinted from THE WEEK, 9 October, 2004.


For the past 40 years, Turkey has been asking to become a member of the EU. Now it wants a final decision


How strong is Turkey's desire to join?

It has been trying since at least 1963, when it signed an association agreement with the then EEC. Yet it was only in 1999, having seen the East European nations jump the entry queue, that Turkey was granted formal candidate status. Many Turks think that joining will not only make them richer - half of Turkey's exports go to EU member states, with Germany the largest single market - but also bolster Turkey's Western traditions. EU enlargement commissioner Günter Verheugen has now said that the Commission will give the go-ahead for formal talks on Turkey's entry, the final decision to be made by EU leaders in December. This is a very big deal: no nation that has begun negotiations for membership has ever failed, eventually, to make the grade. "Eventually", in Turkey's case, could mean ten or more years after it has been accepted, but that has done nothing to calm the intensity of debate on the issue now raging on the Continent.


Are the objections to Turkey's entry economic ones?

Some are. Should Turkey - a nation with 70 million Muslims and most of its land mass in Asia - join the club, it will be the EU's most populous country, and by far the poorest. Not only is it debt-ridden (it only survived the 2001 economic crisis thanks to a $16bn lifeline from the IMF), it has a huge trade deficit ($23bn this year). Opponents of entry argue that Turkey would drain EU coffers, making it impossible to sustain such programmes as the CAP and reducing the EU to nothing more than a trade zone. Moreover, under the proposed EU Constitution, voting power is tied to population size, so Ankara could in theory become as important a player as Berlin, Paris and London. But supporters, Britain included, claim that Turkey has put its economic house in order, implementing a programme of deregulation and market reforms resulting in 8.2% growth this year and a 10% rise in productivity. Far from holding it back, they argue, Turkey's economy could boost the economically moribund EU while its young and growing population would offset the demographic crisis plaguing Europe's ageing workforce.


What are the other objections?

It's the prospect of Islamification that arouses the most visceral fears, most of all in those nations - Germany, France and Holland - with sizeable Muslim populations. (With Turkey's admission, 20% of the EU's popu­lation would be Muslim as opposed to just 3% today.) Moreover, dread of the Muslim invader is branded into folk memories across large swathes of central Europe. In Austria - whose capital, Vienna, was besieged by the Turks in 1683 - the right-wing Freedom Party has said it will pull out of the ruling coalition if the government supports Turkey's membership. Last month Austria's European commissioner, Franz Fischler, prophesied that the fundamental differences between EU and Turkish values would lead to a split within Europe mirroring that which led to the American Civil War over slavery. Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch commissioner, has said

publicly that if the EU admits 70 million Turkish Muslims the 1683 Battle of Vienna would have been "in vain".


And isn't Turkey notorious for human rights abuses?

It certainly has been, but it has come a long way since Midnight Express. To prepare for EU entry, the government of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has undertaken a feverish round of reforms to fulfil EU demands on human rights. It has, inter alia, abolished the death penalty, outlawed torture, allowed teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish, loosened the army's influence on politics by disbanding military courts and softened the hardline attitude to Cyprus. Last month, it approved a new penal code which reinforces women's rights, bans "honour killings" and increases penalties for crimes such as torture, rape and paedophilia.


So Turkey has embraced liberal values?

Not really. Under the constitution established by Kemal Atatürk (see box), Turkey is officially a secular state, but Islamic conserv­atism is still a power to be reckoned with. Erdogan himself leads the Islamist Justice and Development Party, which has been deeply unhappy about many of the recent reforms. Last month EU negotiations ground to a halt after Erdogan, under pressure from hardline Islamists, included a provision in the penal reform package that would have made adultery an imprisonable, criminal offence. It had the support of 80% of the population, a majority in the parliament - and initially of Erdogan himself. But the EU was implacably opposed: "Europe has struggled for centuries to free itself from hegemonies of absolutism in government and religion," said the framer of the EU constitution, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, "so when governments consider criminalising aspects of what happens between consenting adults, alarm bells should ring." (In point of fact adultery was a crime in France until 1975 and in Ireland until 1981. In America, 23 states still have such laws on their books.) To placate his European critics Erdogan has now dumped the measure on adultery.


And if Turkey isn't accepted?

Europe, like the wider world, is on the threshold of a crisis that could either descend into an all-out confrontation between the West and the Islamic world or move to some kind of accommodation that breaks up conflicts into specific issues with specific causes and specific solutions. Erdogan has warned of a dangerous backlash if the EU's "yes" is any­thing other than unequivocal and that rejection would deal a hammer blow to the Atatürk heritage of secularism. "People need to think very carefully," said Jack Straw recently; "about the strategic implications of pushing Turkey away... to the east and to the south." Turkish accession is moderate Islam's best chance to prove that it can cohabit peacefully and permanently with both democracy and other faiths. For Europe to regress to the mindset of 1683 Vienna would be to promote the world of division that Islamic terrorists wish to see.


The father of Turkish democracy Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) is revered by Turks as the founder of the Republic of Turkey. He emerged as a military hero at Gallipoli and became leader of the national liberation movement in 1919. In 1923, as creator of the new Republic, he inaugurated a programme of sweeping reforms including the disestablishment of Islam, the abolition of Sharia law, the replacement of Arabic with Latin script, and compulsory education - including education of women. Democracy was introduced slowly. The first multi-party elections took place in 1946. Since then there have been three military "interventions", but after all three, the military quickly withdrew to its barracks and the democratic process resumed.


The success of democracy in Turkey is partly due to its long, close contact with the West and still more to the fact it has achieved economic growth through its own efforts, not by the presence of oil. As a result a large professional, technical and entrepreneurial middle class has arisen, its members displaying all the attitudes of their Western cousins. In addition, and unlike most Muslim nations, Turkey was never subject to imperial rule, so democratic institutions were neither imposed by victors nor bequeathed by departing imperialists, but were introduced by the free choice of the Turks themselves.

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