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Editorial: Turkey knocks at EU doors

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-05

For five years now, Turkey has been asking the satraps of the European Union for a date on which its candidacy for the 25-nation EU can be formally discussed. This is a simple request. But for five years, the EU has given Turkey the go-around; indeed, in October 2002 the EU even rejected Turkey's request for a discussion date. This is both puzzling and unacceptable. It is also insulting to a country of 70 million moderate Muslims, which has been a loyal member of NATO for very many years. With a major EU meeting scheduled for December, the EU has a timely opportunity to open the question of Turkish membership. Such membership would be economically and politically beneficial not only for the EU and, of course, Turkey, but also healthy for an international community increasingly riven by tensions over the role of Islam in global politics. Even those European statesmen like France's former president, Valery Giscard D'Estaing, who worry that the Turkey's entry would change the demography of the largely Christian EU of 460 million people, should understand that membership formalities won't be completed for another decade, at least. In other words, Europe's current 15 million Muslims aren't about to be complemented by 70 million raging fundamentalists.

As United States President George W. Bush said at a NATO summit in Istanbul earlier this week, Turkey is hardly fundamentalist, although the constitutionally secular country does have a government with Islamic leanings. Mr Bush's enthusiasm for Turkey's membership in the EU did not go across too well with French President Jacques Chirac. Mr Chirac accused the American of interfering in the internal business of the EU. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder backed Mr Bush's support for Turkey. Although only five percent of Turkey's land mass actually sits in Europe, Messrs Bush, Blair and Schroeder recognize that the fabled country simply cannot be ignored on economic and political grounds, not to mention social ones: There are nearly 3.5 million Turkish "guest workers" in EU countries, 2 million of them in Germany alone. Since 1999, they have contributed more than US$75 billion to the EU's gross domestic product. Of these Turks, some 90,000 own businesses, employing almost 400,000 of their compatriots. There's wide agreement that Europe's Turks are generally law abiding. They have sometimes suffered because of discrimination in employment and social opportunities, but Turks have seldom launched public agitations in Europe.

So what's the EU's problem in at least giving Turkey a date on which to begin talking about its candidacy? One argument made by bureaucrats at EU headquarters in Brussels is that Turkey has yet to fully satisfy EU requirements concerning democratic and environmental reforms, judicial independence, and adherence to human rights - the so-called "Copenhagen criteria." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that his country has ended torture of dissidents; opened up its airwaves to minority Kurds, stuck to its secularism, and even assisted the West in anti-terrorism campaigns. A European Commission report to be published in October should confirm Mr Erdogan's assertions. Another argument against Turkey's EU membership is that it would blur the boundaries of an "authentic Europe." But perhaps the most vituperative argument involves demography. At current growth rates, Turkey's population will surpass Germany's 82 million in a little more than a decade, making it the most populated EU state - and a Muslim one at that.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, the EU certainly owes it to Turkey to at least discuss them openly. Turkey can serve as a bridge between Islam and the West in our world of increasingly globalisation, just as it was a civilizational link for Muslims and Christians during the Ottoman era. The bigwigs of Brussels would do well to set a date.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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