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Too big for Europe?

Nov 14th 2002
From The Economist print edition

The Turks are at the gates of Brussels

THEY sing in the Eurovision Song contest, play football in the European football championships and deliberate in the Council of Europe. But apparently it is all a misunderstanding. Turkey is not a European country. That is the opinion of none other than Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, chairman of the convention on the European Union's future. Turkish representatives are at the convention and the EU has told their country it is a candidate to join the club. But according to Mr Giscard d'Estaing it would be the end of the EU if Turkey were ever actually to get in.

The intervention of VGE, as he is familiarly known in France, was widely attacked. A war with Iraq is on the horizon, there are warnings of an imminent al-Qaeda attack in Europe, the EU badly needs Turkish co-operation to secure a settlement in Cyprus and Turkey has just elected a government with Islamist roots. What a time, groaned the critics, to insult the most secular and pro-western Muslim country there is. Mr Giscard d'Estaing's critics seized on his gaffe to argue that the man is clearly past it.

In fact, VGE's intervention was carefully timed. For the European Union is fast approaching a real moment of decision over Turkey. At the EU summit in Copenhagen next month, the club's current 15 countries are expected to sign agreements to let in another ten, mostly from Central Europe. They will also face mounting pressure to offer Turkey, too, a date for the start of negotiations to join. A European official in Brussels argues that while eventual Turkish membership is not inevitable as things stand, once the negotiating process begins it will be all but unstoppable. So VGE's intervention was a last-minute appeal to European leaders to call a halt, before they head down a path from which there may be no turning back.

Some interpreted Mr Giscard d'Estaing's rejection of Turkey as an assertion that the European Union is a Christian club. VGE is considering inserting an assertion of Christian values into his draft constitution and recently conferred with the pope. But Turkey's Islamic culture is only a part of the argument made by those who are sceptical of its candidacy. Another point made by the convention's president is that 95% of Turkey's land mass is actually in Asia. Once geographic criteria for membership are blurred, how will the EU ever define its boundaries?

But the biggest single anxiety is over Turkey's size. On current demographic trends, by 2020 Turkey (now 67m-strong) may have more people than Germany (now 82m-strong but shrinking). That would make Turkey the largest country in a union which is already a lot more than a mere free-trade area, though it is yet to evolve into the Eurosceptics' dreaded super-state. In the Netherlands, for example, around 40% of new national laws are simply implementations of decisions made by the EU. EU laws themselves are increasingly made by majority vote; if Turkey got into the EU it would have the largest number of votes in its legislative bodiesthe Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. It would also, in time, adopt Europe's single currency and its people would be free to move to Western Europe as they pleased. Anti-immigration parties, with a strong anti-Muslim tinge, have recently gained ground in France, the Netherlands and Austria. Letting Turkey into the EU, says a prominent European politician, would mean more Le Pens and Haiders.

All overblown, say Turkophiles. Big though it is, Turkey would still make up less than 15% of an EU that would then embrace around 600m people. Worries about its democratic credentials would, they argue, be addressed by the very process of negotiating entry. Before any country can even start talking to the EU, it has to conform to certain democratic norms. This year the Turks have abolished the death penalty and started easing language restrictions on their Kurdish minority. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party has just won the Turkish election, recently told EU ambassadors that his party would now move to abolish the use of torturethe largest remaining human-rights obstacle to the beginning of negotiations. Once they do begin, the lucky Turks would have to adopt around 80,000 pages of EU law, covering everything from employment rights to clean-air rules. It will all take a long timecertainly more than a decadeand the Turkey that emerged at the other end would be a very different place. Rather than fearing Turkey's impact on the EU, says Heather Grabbe, of the Centre for European Reform, the Europeans should rejoice in their power to mould and stabilise a large and strategically crucial neighbour.

A habit of being trapped by breezy promises

Whether such a policy would necessarily mean offering Turkey full membership of the EU will doubtless preoccupy many a future seminar. In the real world, however, there is a feeling, pace Mr Giscard d'Estaing, that things are moving the Turks' way. The Americans, who have always promoted Turkish membership of the EU for their own strategic reasons, are pressing the Europeans to be amenable.
This may be working, particularly on the Germans, who are desperate to get back into American good books after being told that Gerhard Schröder's electioneering hostility to American policy over Iraq had poisoned relations. In Turkey, meanwhile, Mr Erdogan is playing his hand intelligently. He reacted in a measured way to Mr Giscard d'Estaing's remarks and hopes that Turkey will raise its standing in EU circles by putting its weight behind a Cyprus settlement.

Whatever happens at the Copenhagen summit, the EU has an ingrained characteristic working in Turkey's favour: a habit of being trapped by its own promises. Privately, many EU leaders are still queasy about letting in the Central Europeans, let alone the Turks. But they promised to let in the ex-communists over a decade ago: what they said publicly turned out to be more important than what they thought privately. It is a logic that worked for Central Europe. It may yet work for Turkey.

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