Friday, December 17, 2004

Turkey for Christmas

I suppose it is quite fitting that the last EU meeting before Christmas should have Turkey on the menu. The question of Turkey's admission to the EU seems to be a thorny issue - one that will undoubtedly come under severe pressure due to the fact that the population of Germany and France, according to the latest opinion polls, are heavily against Turkish accession (other countries were moderately in favour, but with large swathes of people undecided). The question of membership will therefore be prevaricated upon and delayed for as long as possible; Chirac has promised France a referendum on the matter, and the opposition in Germany are unsure about how far they want to tap into German uneasiness on the issue. Such powerful forces aligned at the centre will be able to find some excuse to delay further discussion of the issue for much longer. My guess is that this will centre on the question of recognising Cyprus.

If that is what the matter comes down to, then I think Turkey will eventually be admitted to the EU. There are, of course, compelling reasons against Turkish membership. The strongest is that of security - Turkey has significant land borders, and there are clear concerns about having an EU land border with Iraq, Iran, and other such countries - it may provide a very easy route to Europe for terrorists. I hope this would not be the case, but it must be considered. Other reasons that are given seem to have less merit to me - most notably the cultural question, although I will return to this at the end.

Again, the question of EU expansion demands an answer to the question of what the real purpose of the project is. I blogged earlier about the twin pressures operating on the EU - expansion (which up to now has been used as a very effective tool for bringing about liberalisation in many countries) and integration. The closer the EU moves to political integration, the less feasible expansion becomes. Yes, this very definitely includes Turkey. But I mention this more from an economic standpoint - there is little other option than a two-speed Europe when the old countries share the single currency, and the new countries could not be admitted without causing economic disaster. I personally think that expansion is the best option for the EU. Its strength lies in being a trading bloc; it has helped achieved great democratic reforms across Eastern Europe, and the debate that is currently going on in Romania is a testament to the power for good that the EU can achieve (it appears that a reform candidate has been elected, in part because of the desire not to delay EU membership).

The path of too close an integration, by contrast, will end in disaster unless the EU can define limits on how far it intends to dangle the carrot of membership in response to reforms. It's probable that moves to closer integration would demonstrate divisive forces across Europe anyway. This was seen in the Buttiglione scandal, but can be extended further. The secularism of France and the pillarisation of the Netherlands stand in stark contrast to the heavy religious values prevalent in Spain, Portugal and Poland. Admittedly, countries can stand united in the face of regional tensions - how far can we speak of a British, or a Spanish, or even of a German identity? But trying to extend this across Europe would go too far. People feel attached to national governments, in spite of regional differences, in a way that they cannot identify with Europe.

This is in no small part due to the EU's own image problems. If it stopped trying to strangle the continent with a raft of bureaucracy, I have no doubt it would be held in higher regard. But at the same time, to try and create a genuinely European identity just would not work. It is for this reason that I read the comment of Tony Blair today with dismay: ""On the contrary, if [Turkey] fulfils the same principles of human rights, then Muslim and Christian can work together."

I know that Blair is trying to express an admirable sentiment here. But dividing the democracies of the world into Christian and Muslim is not something which I feel is positive. Turkey should be supported, because it is just about the only example I can think of where an Islamic country is making a real go of making liberal democracy a success. We must hope most strongly that this works, because it is the best chance of demonstrating that the values of liberal democracy are not tied to any particular religion.

It is within that last comment that lies my disappointment with Blair's comment. The EU shouldn't be pursuing a course of political integration so that cultural differences become a major stumbling block. Instead, it should take action where international co-operation is necessary; strengthen the economic growth of Europe as a whole; and perhaps most importantly promote the values of liberal democracy. The world is a richer place for having seen the courage and the success of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. And that is what we should be defending - the values and inherent strengths of liberal democracy. These do not depend on values of any religion. So making the distinction between Muslims and Christians in this context is actually unhelpful - it presupposes that these are insuperable divisions. They are not; in fact, with regards to the EU, they are totally irrelevant. So, if there are other compelling reasons to block Turkish membership, fine, then block it. But don't use religious reasons to try and drive a wedge there which is totally unnecessary.