European Affairs

The Prospect of Turkish Entry Will Hasten a Multi-Speed Europe     Print Email
John Palmer

John PalmerThe European Commission's declaration in early October that Turkey has made sufficient progress in democratic and human rights reform to start negotiations for EU membership is a landmark moment in the history of both Turkey and the European Union. Turkey is the biggest and the poorest country ever to seek to join the European Union and its entry will influence the future course of European integration. If Turkey were to become a member, for instance, the borders of the European Union would stretch to Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkey's membership bid is also controversial because only a tiny fraction of the country is geographically within Europe and, while officially secular, it would be the first Muslim nation to begin entry negotiations with the European Union. Nevertheless, short of a political earthquake, such negotiations will now probably get under way some time in 2005.

It is worth underlining, however, that the Commission is proposing to open negotiations on Turkish membership, not necessarily to conclude them, and that the talks could last many years. Massive problems of economic, legal, social, environmental and political integration remain to be solved before either the government in Ankara or the governments of the European Union will be ready to sign a deal. Even if they do, the process will not be complete. The treaty of accession between the European Union and Turkey will have to be ratified by either a parliamentary vote or a referendum in all the EU member states, as well as in Turkey itself. President Jacques Chirac of France, for example, has already served notice that he will propose an amendment to the French Constitution requiring a referendum to approve Turkey's ventual accession. It is a pretty safe bet that by the time the final, crucial stages of the accession negotiations are reached the European Union will have more than 30 members, compared to only 15 until very recently. Ten new members, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, joined in May 2004, bringing the total to 25. Bulgaria and Romania hope to enter in 2007. Croatia is due to begin negotiations in 2005 and aims to become a member by 2009. Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia want to be admitted some time in the coming ten years, and it is quite possible that Kosovo and Montenegro could follow suit if, as seems likely, they emerge as independent states in the future.

It is common ground between Brussels and Ankara that the negotiation of Turkish membership will take a long time. Diplomats and politicians are openly speculating that the process might take ten to 15 years - meaning that if negotiations begin in 2005 or 2006 Turkey might not be admitted into the European Union until around 2020. Contrary to the views of some U.S. analysts, Brussels officials believe that this extended timetable is very much in the interests of both Turkey and the European Union. It will take years of hard work to implement the economic and political reforms in Turkey that are essential if EU membership is to strengthen the country rather than weaken it. Some of the most far-sighted Turkish reformers actually believe that the "European process is more important in itself than the final outcome of the negotiations. In this view, the opening of the negotiations should provide an overarching European political and legal framework within which the reformers would have the best chance of achieving the country's economic, political and social modernization. The entire, immensely challenging process will demand a radical change in orthodox political mindsets in both Turkey and the European Union. There are grounds for measured optimism. European political leaders have been greatly encouraged by the success of the moderate Islamic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in carrying through basic democratic, legal and human rights reforms in order to meet the criteria for EU membership. Mr. Erdogan's AKP party has done more than decades of pro-Western secular governments to transform Turkey's legal system, strengthen the democratic rule of law, tackle the long abused rights of the Kurds and other minorities and crack down on torture. In the past, Turkey's episodic experi-ments with military regimes took its human rights record backward. The European Commission has given a clear warning that any relapse by Turkey in implementing the latest reforms would put the entire accession process at risk. The hope in Brussels is that, despite Turkey's unique cultural and political characteristics, its accelerating progress toward a "European model of society will strengthen the hand of reformers in other Islamic states in the region and far beyond. The mere prospect of Turkey joining the European Union has come as a considerable culture shock to important sections of the European political classes and public opinion. It has led to declarations by some conservative politicians that Turkey can never really be part of Europe because it is overwhelmingly a Muslim, not a Christian, country. Advo- cates of Turkish membership retort that such claims ignore both Europe's history and the reality of the multicultural societies that are emerging in Europe today. Some argue that the Muslim world, particularly in Spain, played a vital role in inspiring Europe's Renaissance. Today, more people go to the mosque each week in Britain than attend the services of any single Christian denomination, and there are important Muslim communities in many West European EU states, most notably France. Three of the countries likely to join the European Union in the next decade or so, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, are mainly Muslim.

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of legitimate worries about Turkey's eventual accession. Turkey is so poor and underdeveloped that there are serious questions as to how the country can be successfully integrated into the European Union. Under present policies, Turkey alone would swallow virtually all of the limited EU funds intended to help close the development gap between the Union's richer and poorer countries and regions. The consequences might be compared to those of trying to incorporate Mexico and the rest of Central America into the United States.

Moreover, the continuing enlargement of the European Union poses truly horrendous challenges to the future efficient functioning of the Union. Of course some EU countries, and especially Britain, have encouraged the idea of continuous enlargement precisely so as to block further European integration: they would like nothing better than to see the Union end up as little more than a free trade zone. The recent enlargement already poses challenges to the effective and democratic functioning of the Union that will be impossible to overcome if the proposed constitutional treaty is not ratified in all 25 current member countries. Nevertheless, there are powerful tectonic forces pressing the European Union to strengthen, not weaken its integration. The constitutional treaty marks a decisive stage in the creation of common foreign, security and defense policies. The crisis in relations with the Bush Administration and the deep divide across the Atlantic on so many critical issues of global concern have obliged the Union to go to unprecedented lengths to define its international role and its security and defense policies.

The Union is also now responsible for important areas of internal security and justice ø a development that would have been unthinkable for many member states just a few years ago. The single European market and the euro will require a further deepening of cross border integration if they are to succeed. The question is how continuing enlargement and further integration can be pursued at the same time. If enlargement continues in the next decade or so, and particularly if it is to include Turkey, it is hard to see how a vast array of 30 or more diverse states could unanimously agree on important steps to closer integration. The constitutional treaty, however, suggests the most likely way ahead by providing for groups of member states to integrate further and more quickly than the Union as a whole. In the next few years, for example, the countries of the euro area will probably strengthen their economic ties and even introduce some elements of common tax policies. Participants in the Schengen agreement ø which abolishes controls on the movement of people across EU internal borders ø may tighten police and judicial coordination. Even Britain (which remains outside both Schengen and the euro) supports closer EU defense cooperation. If the will is there, the means can be found to organize even a 35-member Union that could include Turkey. A multi-speed, differentially integrated European Union seems inevitable, and the prospect of Turkish membership is likely to hasten its arrival.

One other important factor may help decide the final shape of Turkey's integration in Europe ø the development of a European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). This envisages the eventual creation of a common market, common internal security arrangements and possibly even a common foreign policy linking the enlarged European Union to its new neighbors. These are, to the East, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and maybe Russia if it does not move away from the path to democracy, and, to the South, the North African and Middle Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean. Some believe that this "Big European House (in the words of the late French President Franois Mitterrand) may eventually require a sharing of sovereignty in common institutions. The project is clearly also designed to provide an alternative to continual enlargement of the Union to the point where it could no longer function. In 15 years, Turkey and the European Union will certainly have evolved much farther. It is neither necessary nor helpful now for either side to prejudge the outcome of the accession negotiations. If toward the end of the next decade Turkey's transformation has been achieved, and if the European Union finds a way to reconcile enlargement and integration, Turkish entry must surely follow. It is possible, however, that by then Turkey's leaders might prefer to be a leading partner in the new, wider "European House ø rather than accept the vast nexus of legal obligations required for full membership. For now, the priority in Brussels is to use the goal of EU membership to help Turkey establish itself in its region, and throughout the Muslim world, as a beacon for those aspiring to democracy and reform.


John Palmer is the Political Director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels (www.theepc.be). He was the European Editor of the British newspaper The Guardian between 1975 and 1997. (palmerjohn@arcadis.be)