In central and northern Europe, public opinion is much divided over the possible entry of Turkey into the EU. In Austria, the majority are not in favour; in Germany the Left support Turkey’s entry, whilst the conservative Angela Merkel has often displayed the opposite feeling; and finally in France, the division is so problematic that their president Jacques Chirac has promised to hold a referendum on the subject.
On the other hand, in countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and even Greece, there is no real debate about the future incorporation of Turkey, and between their political parties there is guarded agreement in favour.
Nobody denies the obvious cultural and social similarities between the southern European countries and Turkey. The distinct extrovert character of their people, their love of the nocturnal lifestyle and of strolling the streets, along with the peninsular nature of the country and the warmth of the climate, all make Turkey a legitimate member of this group of countries that so successfully attracts tourists. But if Greece – a country that has always been at odds with Turkey politically and militarily – supports the joining of Turkey without argument, it is because there are strategic benefits for the southern countries.
Some of these strategic motives began to become apparent when Berlusconi, Blair, Barroso and even Aznar made sure that Turkey didn’t oppose the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It became obvious that for the Southern European countries it was important that Turkey acted as a barrier against the instabilities of the Near and Middle East, thus showing that Turkey in the EU would represent, above all, a major influence for the EU in the East, rather than a major Eastern influence in the EU. Not to mention the incentive that it would give for the creation of a European army.
Additionally, Turkey’s accession to the EU would mean a cascade of European investment in the south. The current GDP of Turkey is barely 27% of the EU average, which would require a vast redirection of structural and cohesion policies towards Turkey. These investments in infrastructure in a country of more than 70 million inhabitants would be so huge that local businesses wouldn’t be able to cope and the businesses in neighbouring countries like Greece and Italy would presumably have to lend a hand.
Furthermore, with almost the same population as Germany (it is thought that the entrance of Turkey into the EU would cause a huge number of Turkish emigrants to return from Germany) the Turkish vote in the European Council would tip the balance in favour of the interests of countries such as Spain and Portugal, who have come back from the edge of the Community since the enlargements to the east and north of the continent. The prospect of creating a solid economic Mediterranean force in the EU is sufficient to encourage the southern governments to emphasise the many points that liken them to Turkey: their peripheral, peninsular nature (Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain along with Portugal are peninsulas), their respective Islamic pasts, their imperial influences, their emigrant traditions, the large presence of American military bases in their territories and the burden of their agricultural sectors on their economies.
This last point would allow for a continuation of the Common Agricultural Policy that greatly benefits countries such as Spain and Italy, despite also representing a burden on their attempts to organise their production. Finally, if you add this to the growing tourist and cultural specialisation of all these countries, a set of economic interests would develop that would strengthen their voice when up against other European interests. After all, there is no hiding from the fact that the EU is still made up of axis and regions with common interests, each trying to influence things for their own benefit.