Turkey Will Never Join the European Union


So says Geoffrey Wheatcroft, an English journalist,  in an August 5 article in The New Republic. This, even though the new British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a recent visit to Turkey, said that Turkey should join the E.U. as soon as possible. Wheatcroft bases his argument largely on the economic and demographic disparities between Turkey and the rest of the Union. Turkey, with 70 million people and a growing population, would soon become the largest member state by population, though its per capita GDP is less than a third of Germany’s. Wheatcroft also brings up the resurgence of Islamist sentiment in a country that for the past 90 years has been characterized by a rigorous secularism. The EU, he says, is a place in which drinking wine and beer is part of the culture in a way that Turkey is not. Though Turks produce and consume excellent beer and wines, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of what The Economist and the Brookings Institute always refer to as “the mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party” did ban alcohol when he was mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, though with limited success. I visited Istanbul twice during that period and never even noticed the ban.

Wheatcroft’s points are valid as far as they go, but the real story is more complex and more interesting. The Continental Europeans, most of them, with France in the vanguard, have never hid their opposition to Turkish membership, while the U.K. tends to favor it. The U.S. Government also – even though it is arguably none of their business – has several times pronounced itself in favor of Turkish admission. Even so, Turkey, which has been an associate member of the EU since 1963 and in 1987 formally submitted its application to accede, has stood by and watched as the Baltic states – which were not even independent countries when Turkey submitted its application – as well Cyprus and Malta and most of the Eastern European countries of the former Soviet bloc, walked through the door. It is a sure bet that Serbia, Croatia, and Iceland will be admitted before Turkey, and pretty likely that even places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova, Georgia and the Ukraine, will become part of the EU as Turkey sits and waits. And waits. Turkey may compete in the Eurovision Song Contest, that other great mark of europeanness, and even won the prize in 2003, but it will never achieve more than associate status in the EU. Turkey’s recent and well-publicized spats with Israel, long a staunch ally, are almost certainly a manifestation of Turkey’s reassessment of where its true interests lie, and a determination to become a leader in the Middle East rather than continue to sit at the children’s table in the EU.

Though few will say so out loud – and those that do so are branded as racists – Islam is one of the important reasons Turkey will never get in. Europe is already experiencing rapid islamicization, and that won’t change whether or not Turkey joins the EU, but for many the prospect of another 70 million Muslims able to move into Western Europe at will is frightening. Albania and Bosnia, both small Muslim countries, may be able to join without upsetting too many people, but not Turkey. Islam, however, is far from the only reason Turkey remains outside the union, and it doesn’t explain why so many of Europe’s governments give such full-throated support to Turkish accession.

Turkey’s main opponents are France, Austria, and Germany. Germany’s opposition is motivated partly by a wish to preserve its status and share of total votes as the largest EU member, and partly by the difficulties it has had integrating the millions of Turkish immigrants and their descendants who live there. Germany’s opposition to Turkish membership has hardened as a function of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s aversion to bailing out the poorer (and mainly southern) EU members from the consequences of their own profligate policies. It would pain both the Turks and the Greeks to hear it, but as far as Germany is concerned, Turkey is just a larger version of Greece.

Austria still carries memories of the Hapsburg days when it saw many of its territories occupied by the Ottomans and when in 1683 it defeated the Sultan’s army on the outskirts of Vienna, halting the last great Muslim effort to conquer Western Europe.

The French are, as always, different. Even more than the Germans, they fear that Turkish accession will drive a wedge between the Franco-German alliance that continues to call many of the shots in Europe. Even though the relationship is currently frayed by personal animosity between Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and by fundamental disagreements over fiscal and economic policy, France has always seen its partnership with Germany as the heart of the European project. A few other countries, including Denmark, which is struggling with immigration issues of its own, also oppose Turkish membership.

If a Europe-wide referendum were held today, Turkey would be decisively rebuffed, which is why no country, with the possible exception of France, is likely to hold a referendum. Even in the countries whose governments strongly advocate it, popular support is tepid at best. In Poland, Slovakia, and Sweden, officially Turkey’s strongest supporters, less than half the population wants to see Turkey join.

Why, then, do their governments support Turkey’s application? It comes down to the tension between widening Europe and deepening it.

The governments of many EU members, especially countries of the former Soviet bloc, support Turkey’s accession, and overall EU enlargement, for a variety of motives, though their support in most cases is far shallower than that of Turkey’s opponents. Some of the support is undoubtedly for reasons of political correctness – few politicians want to be accused of being anti-Islamic – but it is a fair characterization that opponents of Turkish accession, who also tend to be against almost any further enlargement of the EU, want to see Europe deepened, while those who favor Turkish membership do so because they don’t want to be part of a federal Europe and don’t want more laws and regulations from Brussels and Strasbourg to override their domestic policies.

The countries that support Turkey are more suspicious of grand schemes for political integration in Europe. Their businesses like and benefit from the removal of internal trade barriers and the establishment of a single market, but neither businesses nor the population at large wants to see their tax rates, social policies, and the content of their sausages dictated by Brussels. This is especially true of the U.K.

The French, more than almost any other country, believe passionately in the European project. True, French voters did reject the Lisbon treaty, which was drafted by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a former French President, but that was because French voters thought it conceded too much to “neo-liberal” Anglo Saxon ideas about economic freedom. France considers itself a natural leader in the EU – a view in which the Germans, until recently, acquiesced – and this has magnified French influence and power. This matters deeply to the French, who still like to think of themselves as a great power.

Deeper integration in Europe reduces national sovereignty. This is fine for places like Belgium and Luxembourg, which don’t have much in the way of a national identity to protect, and they, unsurprisingly, also oppose Turkey’s admission. But for those countries like the UK and Spain, which face growing challenges by regional independence movements, a deeper Europe may make it easier for regions with separatist tendencies to secede. A fully sovereign and independent Wales or Catalonia makes little sense, but either or both could do quite well as semi-sovereign members of a federal European state. The Eastern European countries, having so recently emerged from the Soviet Empire, are not keen to submerge their hard-won independence in a new empire, however kind and gentle it may be. Turkish admission to the EU would be a defense against deeper integration, as would further expansion to include the Balkans, the Caucasus, and parts of the Russian “near abroad.”

Not that it matters very much, but the U.S. supports Turkish membership, partly because it still believes that anchoring Turkey in Europe will prevent its radical islamicization, and partly because the emergence of Europe as a unitary state with an economy and population substantially larger than its own, is viewed as a potential rival. Better a wider Europe as a loose federation than a deeper one.

For its part, Turkey may have begun to realize that it already has the best of both worlds. It is a full member of the single European market and it receives substantial aid from the EU, but it faces minimal interference in its internal affairs on matters of social policy, fiscal affairs, human rights, or democratic governance. Why in the world would they want to join? In fact, fewer Turks do. A Eurobarometer poll in late 2009 showed that only 45% of Turks support EU membership, down from nearly 80% in 2004.

Turkey will not withdraw its application to join the EU, but it will probably devote less and less energy to trying to meet the formidable entry requirements. The Turks and the Europeans will maintain the polite fiction that Turkey remains a serious candidate for EU membership until at some point – 2025? 2050? – they no longer even bother. By that time, the EU expansionists hope, some of the most bitter debates about the extent of European integration will have been settled.

Even then, Turkey will not be cast out of Europe entirely. It will remain tightly linked to the EU economy, to everyone’s benefit, though expect it to increase its already substantial business presence in the Arab countries and in the Turkic-speaking parts of the former Soviet Union. Already a member of UEFA, the European football (soccer association), Turkey narrowly lost (to France) its bid to host the UEFA cup championship in 2016, but its turn will come. And there is still Eurovision.

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