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Europe and Turkey
Turkey belongs in Europe

Dec 5th 2002
From The Economist print edition

The European Union should be willing to bring Turkey into its ever-growing club

A NEW map of the old continent is unrolling at a dizzying speed. It now seems very likely that by the end of next week a European Union of 15 countries containing some 370m people will have asked another ten countries with 90m more people to join the show. This invitation comes a bare month after NATO asked another seven countries, most of them in that same batch of would-be newcomers to the EU, to join the world's greatest military alliance. A mere decade-and-a-half ago, when the world's pair of then superpowersthe United States and the Soviet Unionwere glowering at each other across a nervous European continent divided by barbed wire and antagonistic ideologies, the notion of so dramatic a turnabout would have been absurd.

A Union based on values

Yet even these extraordinary events pale beside what may well be the trickiest conundrum for Europe's leaders when they meet next week in Copenhagen. That is the question of whether Turkey, a Muslim country of nearly 70m souls, which is already part of NATO, should be invited, with real intent provided that the applicant meets rigorous conditions, to join Europe's top civilian club too. It is a massive question, because it raises the issue of where the geographical boundaries of the EU should end. Might Russia itself, one day, be included? Could Morocco ever make the grade? Indeed, if Turkey joined, why not, one day, its neighbour, Iraq?

It is hard to answer that question without deciding what the ultimate purpose of the EU is. But here there is no consensus: the habit of the EU has been to invent itself as it goes along. Its shape and purpose are evolving. It is plainly becoming a hybrid: much more than just a free-trade area but much less than a superstate. For many of its members, not just for those awkward Britons but also for prickly newcomers such as the 40m Poles, a headlong drive towards political and even military integration will be resisted. The Economist would prefer this looser sort of Europe, perhaps comprising overlapping inner clubs of those who wish to integrate more tightly. As for Russia, or Morocco, why should geography, or religion, dictate who might join? If the European idea is to inspire, it ought to be about values, not maps or tribes. Countries that can subscribe to the core values of democracy and freedom should be eligible as candidates, be they Slavs or Muslims, and no matter how far they are in miles from Paris or Berlin.

At some point, any club bumps into the danger of growing so big that the benefits of belonging to it are diluted. If the EU continues to insist on every new member adopting its common currency, the laws of economics mean that the limit will be reached sooner rather than later. But no such question of optimal size is raised by the question of Turkey. The Turks want Europe, as a mark of sincerity, to name at least a date when, provided that progress towards market stability and a better upholding of human rights continues, they can start formally negotiating for entry into the EUeven though they know they are unlikely to be ready for actual membership for another 10-15 years. The Europeans should agree.

That does not mean that there are no reasons to be wary. Once negotiations have begun, it will be harder later, at any time, to reject Turkey without provoking the same anti-western and even anti-Christian fury that an invitation is meant to dispel. And it is true that, as things in Turkey stand, progress will have to speed up still more if it is to qualify even for starting negotiations. An admirably radical reform package enacted in August and further proposals put forward this week still need implementing. The treatment of dissidents, ethnic minorities and ordinary prisoners must yet improve: torture is less frequent but still common. The loosening of restrictions against the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education is still tentative. The generals still have too great a say in politics. The market economy is fragile. A strong new government with a big majority in parliament and Islamic roots in the country has made a good start. But it is early days. An unconditional promise to start negotiations would be silly.

Moreover, those in Western Europe who question where the EU would end and what sort of Union would evolve if 70m Turks became part of it have a point. Membership for a country whose land mass is overwhelmingly in Asia would indeed be anomalous. And at a time when Europeans are gathered at a convention in Brussels to produce ways of streamlining decision-making and to make the running of the EU more understandable to its citizens, it may seem odd to digest yet another country that may well, if demographic trends continue, become the Union's largest in a generation or so.

But the reasons for being bold and generous towards Turkey are stronger still. It straddles east and west. Its finest historic landmarks are indubitably in Europeon the western side of the Bosporus. As a longstanding NATO member, it has been a crucial part of Europe's defences. It has been a beacon of good sense in a combustible bit of the world. And as part of any deal, Turkey's new government would be expected to squeeze its hitherto recalcitrant cousins in Cyprus into accepting the latest sensible idea presented by the United Nations for a loosely confederal system.

The tie that could bind Islam and the West

Perhaps most important, an EU that is open to Turkey should send a message to the troubled Muslim world of today: the West does not consider Islam and democracy incompatible as long as Islam doesn't. Within the EU's current borders live a good 15m or so Muslims, whose rights are well protected in law. Albania and Bosnia, both states with partly Muslim heritages, should be equally valid candidates, eventually, for EU membership. Later, the net might stretch wider still.

Since the Ottoman empire's fall, Turkey has been at best a sporadic and flawed democracy with weak traditions of civic virtue. But of late it has been improving remarkably. Offering a provisional date for the start of negotiations is an historic chance for Europe but also for the Muslim world to show that their two great civilisations are not fated always to clash.

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I.E.S. Parque de Lisboa 
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