The Turks are coming! Or are they? This was the topic that dominated the referendums held in France and Holland on the proposed European Union Constitution last summer. Although the issue of Turkey’s membership of the union was not even on the agenda, opponents of the proposed draft succeeded in putting it at the heart of the debate. In the event the French and the Dutch voted with unexpectedly large majorities to kill the putative constitution.
The latest row over whether or not the union should even negotiate with Turkey about its membership showed that the issue is as alive and kicking as ever. Even the start of official talks on Turkey’s membership last Tuesday is unlikely to dampen the passions the issue arises on all sides.
But how much of all this concerns Turkey and how much is a smokescreen behind which other agendas could be pursued?
The answer is that both those who support Turkey’s membership and those who oppose it are not solely prompted by the merits of the argument but are motivated by hidden agendas.
Let us start with the supporters of Turkish membership with Britain in the lead.
The key argument advanced by supporters of Turkish membership is that if Turkey is rejected this would have a bad effect on the Muslim world which would supposedly regard the European Union as a hostile Christian club.
“Turkey is a bridge between Europe and the Muslim world” says British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
The argument, however, is full of holes. To start with most Turks hate seeing their nation described as a mere bridge which means it either no personality of its own or suffers from cultural schizophrenia.
In fact, there is no evidence that Turkey is such a bridge if only because its relations with the Muslim world, including its immediate neighbours Iran, Iraq and Syria, remain minimal. At the same time Turkey plays only a marginal role in current Islamic culture and literature not to mention theology and philosophy. This is not only due to the fact that Turkey has been a radically secular republic for more 80 years. The real reason is that Turkish writers, poets and other producers of culture are more interested in Europe than in Islam. Over the past half a century Turkey has produced at least half a dozen poets and writers of world stature. Not one can be described as Islamic.
All this does not mean that the people of Turkey have ceased to be Muslims. On the contrary, a majority of Turks are deeply attached to their faith and are, perhaps, more interested in Islam than their Iranian neighbours. They are Muslims living in a country that politically and culturally is no longer Islamic. In other words Turkey has achieved the ideals of the European Enlightenment under which religion should be regarded as a private matter while the public space is faith-neutral.
Jack Straw’s “bridge” argument is self-defeating for two reasons. First, by injecting a religious element into what ought to be a political and economic issue, he strengthens those who oppose Turkish membership on the grounds that Turkey is a Muslim nation. If, as Straw suggests, Islam should be a consideration in this debate, those who fear an Islamicisation of Europe would also have the right to air their concerns on the subject.
But even supposing the “bridge” argument has any justification it would, still, be a bad point for those who use it to urge Turkey’s membership of the EU. The reason is that a bridge, suddenly drawn to one side for good, ceases to be a bridge. It would become like a draw-bridge over a moat in a fortified castle. Devout Muslims might see Turkey’s membership of the EU as a loss for Islam, as if a member of the family was being taken hostage by historic foes.
The British want Turkey in the EU for other reasons. Chief among these is that Britain is opposed to the idea of a federal United States of Europe, which much of the continental elite supports. With Turkey in the EU the dream of political unification would all but vanish. It would take at least 10 years of negotiations to complete the process of Turkey’s membership.
And once Turkey is in the union it could take another 10 to 15 years for the union to absorb what would be its largest and poorest member. Thus the dream of political re-unification would be postponed for at least a quarter of a century.
Opponents of Turkey’s membership also use Islam as an argument, this time to keep the Turks out. Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing claims that Turkish membership would inject a strong dose of Islam into the union. But, as already noted, Turkey, as a state, is more secular than any other member of he EU, including France. The Turkish constitution bans the propagation of any religious, including Islam, whereas all other EU members, including France, not only accept it but also guarantee it as an inalienable human right.
Turkish law is based on the secular French tradition and the Swiss Civil Code while the legal system in most other EU members has evolved from Christian-Roman sources. The Turkish state has no official religion while at least three EU members, Britain, Denmark and Greece uphold their respective versions of Christianity as state religion.
People like Giscard know full well that Islam isn’t the issue here. To start with no one knows which of the current members of the EU may end up having a Muslim majority by the year 2025, the date at which Turkey would be fully absorbed into the union.
Giscard and other opponents of Turkish membership come to this issue from the direction opposite to that of Straw. Giscard wants political unification and knows that Turkey, which could have a population of 100 million by 2020, would be a big obstacle to such a scheme.
The remnants of the Stalinist left and other anti-Americans also oppose Turkey’s application on ideological, rather than religious, grounds. Turkish membership would strengthen the position of NATO within the European Union, and add a big power to the pro-American camp while strengthening those who support free trade and globalisation.
Using Turkey as an excuse for xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-globalisation positions is both disingenuous and dishonest. Europe cannot be organised on the basis of real or imagined religious differences. Sooner or later Albania and Bosnia, both of which have a Muslim majority, would be knocking on the doors of the union. Would they be shut out because their people happen to be Muslims by birth?
The Turkish application should be judged on its political and economic merits, and on the basis of the rules applied to all other 25 members. By those rules, Turkey today has a stronger claim to EU membership than did Greece when it first applied to join.