Against Membership by Force

Article published on Oct. 4, 2004
community published
Article published on Oct. 4, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Turkey is a very different kind of candidate, as the current debate goes to show. If the issue is not one of systematic objection, one should not overlook European public opinion

The possible commencement of negotiations on the accession of the Republic of Turkey to the EU is bringing to light numerous reservations. However, diplomats have decided not to set this particular candidacy apart from others and experts from the European Commission are conscientiously filling in their check-list, making sure of the country’s ability to conform to the accession criteria set in Copenhagen in 1993. This approach, based almost solely on ‘on-paper’ criteria is a mistake insofar as it does not take into account the specific problem with the Turkish candidacy, which lies in the fact that a large proportion of the European population are hostile to it.

Sharing the Same Citizenship

Unlike joining the Euro Zone, becoming a member of the European Union cannot be solely based on adherence to more or less objective criteria. “We are not creating a coalition of nations, but uniting people” claimed Jean Monnet, and this remains to this day the best explanation for the original reasoning behind Europe. Turkey’s entry is therefore not a question of acceptance into a strategic diplomatic union, or some kind of commercial pact, but primarily one of sharing our European citizenship with the Turkish people.

The weakness of this sense of community is the major reason for crisis in federal states such as Canada or Belgium. Those who wish for an ambitious and cohesive Europe cannot ignore this, even if universally accepted values or the examination of certain objective criteria can, when taken individually, encourage a welcoming attitude.

Turkey’s candidacy is different simply because our fellow citizens feel it is, and this must be taken into account. One of the main causes for concern is certainly Europeans’ lack of knowledge about modern Turkey, but then those who were most opposed to the accession of the newest ten member states did not know much about Slovenia or Slovakia either. However, their accession didn’t stir up the level of opposition observed towards Turkey.

Europeans’ misgivings are all the more serious as they are a matter of identity and politics. The Muslim faith of the majority of the Turkish population turns a lack of knowledge into mistrust. Many are unaware of the extent to which the country is secularised, or of the nature of religious practice in Turkey. What is known about Turkey usually prompts wariness: the country is the most highly populated candidate for entry to the EU since Great Britain, which will give it an equivalent decision-making weight in Europe to that of Germany. Also, its army has played an important role in recent politics and if one also mentions the issues of Cyprus and the Armenian genocide, this candidate has got a lot of convincing to do.

Unsafe Arguments

Europe is a political project. Let us therefore set aside so-called cultural or geographic arguments of EU advocates. Even with this in mind, arguments in favour of Turkey’s membership are sometimes far from sound. For example, ‘the prospect of joining the EU is encouraging development of the constitutional state and human rights in Turkey. The criteria set out in Copenhagen are essential for this and the efforts undertaken now should be rewarded’. To me, this argument seems particularly out of place. To demand that a country respects these principles seems to me to be necessary as the foundation for any responsible politics. How can one justify being so preoccupied with the constitutional state in Turkey, and so disinterested in the situation in, say, Russia? The respect for fundamental human rights should not be just a means to accession for a new member state, but simply a factor to be taken into account in any responsible foreign policy.

Geo-strategical arguments are also relative. Would proposing a serious alternative to membership, such as that of status of privileged partner, lead to disruption of Turkish foreign policy? The country today has a strong foothold in NATO and yet doesn’t share a border with a stable interlocutor. The EU, having no foreign policy to speak of, would in no way benefit from having Turkey in its midst - but on the contrary would have an additional obstacle to overcome the necessary drawing up of a common policy.

Ten Years until the Next Meeting?

European governments like to seem reassuring on the subject of Turkey’s candidacy. They indicate that definitive membership could only be conceivable in ten to fifteen years, speculating occasionally on possible re-inspection within that period. However, negotiations in the past have generally concluded in membership within a period of a few years. Why would it be any other way, when it is a question of diplomatic procedure?

If the date set for Turkey’s entry is so far off, is it not necessary today to wave the red rag when the EU is already involved in various difficult battles for its future, starting with the constitutional treaty. The opening of negotiations next December amounts to saying to European citizens that their concerns don’t matter. The backlash will follow swiftly and the penalty will become apparent in the months to come during consultations on the ratification of the constitution. Already, the lack of effort in informing and preparing citizens of established member states upon the enlargement on 1st May 2004 is undoubtedly going to have consequences when the votes are cast. In order for these debates to be led impartially they have, first and foremost, to be seen separately. Today’s priority should be the discussion on the constitution.

Our leaders must also realize that dragging Turkey into the EU would be harmful both to Europe, which would lose its coherence and ambition, and to Turkey. The support of a reasonable proportion of our fellow citizens is essential, and the hypothesis of holding referenda on this issue in certain countries should not, in principle, be remote from this, as welcoming of Turkey into our fold will influence the future of Europe as much, if not more than, the constitution. A European Union extended to Turkey would certainly not have the necessary cohesion in order to continue its progression. And it is this that should remain our objective.