A Small Step for Europe, A Giant Leap for Turkey

Largely Muslim Turks got good news in November: Germany wouldn't block their admission to the EU.

The announcement hardly appeared stunning. But it had the potential to alter a historic divide between East and West.

On Nov. 10, with the usual subtlety of European policymaking, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel allowed that, if the European Union wanted to invite Turkey to its conference for prospective new members, Bonn would not stand in the way.

In fact, inclusion of the largely Muslim nation in the February conference would be a clear signal that Turkey is on track for EU membership at some point - in a few years, maybe decades.

Despite this open-ended time frame, the Turkish ambassador in Bonn, Volkan Vural, hailed Mr. Kinkel's comment as "a positive development."

"We feel that we are in the enlargement process.... We know there will be some time needed for Turkey to join. That's not an issue," he said.

The challenge for the EU is how to bind Turkey, with all its political and economic shortcomings, to the West. European leaders do not want to "lose" Turkey to political Islam, but they don't to be overwhelmed by it either.

Human rights vs. strategic need

Turkey's bid for EU membership is weakened by its dubious human rights record. Although the government has ratified two international agreements against the use of torture, the human rights group Amnesty International says the practice remains "routine and systematic" in Turkey.

However imperfect Turkish democracy may be, the country's geostrategic importance as a NATO ally is undisputed. In the past, it was important because of its proximity to the former Soviet Union. Today, it's important because of its closeness to the Middle East. American fighter planes, for instance, can monitor northern Iraq by using a Turkish air base.

Turkey was brought into NATO during the 1950s, at the same time as its archrival, Greece. "Standards were a little different" in those days, a US official at NATO admits.

"The democratic criteria were not stressed" quite the way they are today, he notes. Now, NATO is seen as an instrument of democracy-building for members and aspirants, as well as a military alliance.

The US emphatically favors Turkey's inclusion in the EU but knows that it has no say in who becomes a member.

If Turkey joined the EU, its population of more than 60 million would trail only Germany (84 million), and is slightly higher than that of France, Britain, or Italy. But Turkey's annual per capita income of roughly $2,500 puts it at or below the level of many small Eastern European countries. Some EU nations worry membership could spark a flood of low-wage Turkish laborers. And there are reservations about what are delicately known as "cultural differences." Turkey is Muslim while Europe is predominantly Christian.

Religion an issue

"Religion is an issue that is often glossed over," says Heather Grabbe, a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "But it's important."

European relations with Turkey have eased, however, since Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist who pushed religious policies, was succeeded in June by Mesut Yilmaz, who is more like a traditional secular leader.

But for all that is made of a development like the Kinkel comment, it's not at all clear that a fundamental decision to include Turkey has been made. "The elites in many countries [of the EU] are divided over this," says Ms. Grabbe. "There's not a strong lobby for Turkey."

Germany's objection to including Turkey in the European Conference had been that it would send a false signal, suggesting that Turkey was closer to EU membership than is the case.

Greece, meanwhile, has often used its position in the EU to block attempts to further integrate Turkey into Europe. The two countries have long-simmering territorial disputes, most notably over the divided island of Cyprus.

At any rate, the European Conference, to be held in London, is not yet a sure thing. It must still receive final approval at an EU summit in December. Delegates at the summit in Luxembourg will also adopt a list of recommended candidates to begin EU accession talks next year. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia, and Cyprus made the list.

Consolation prize

The London conference has been described as a "consolation prize" for nations that didn't make the list. Some countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania, had hoped the gathering could be a real forum for getting into "the first wave" after all.

The inclusion of Turkey, with no near-term prospects of joining the EU, "at the very least devalues the conference as part of the membership strategy of those other countries," as analyst Eberhard Wisdorff observed in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt.

Nothing to lose, possible gain

A classic diplomatic analysis would suggest that there is nothing to be gained by closing the door on Turkey, and nothing to be lost by leaving it open, as long as no membership date is offered.

But, says Grabbe at the Royal Institute, "there's no end to the conditionality" presented to the Turks.

She says, "The Eastern European countries are being told, 'Do your homework,' and they're given a checklist, and if they do everything on the checklist, they'll be able to join. The Turks are told, 'Do your homework,' but they aren't even being given a checklist."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.