07 November 2003

Turkey in Europe?

The European Union is on the brink of an unprecedented expansion. Ten new members will enter in May 2004, but Turkey will not be among them. Despite this, no one wants finally to reject Ankara’s longstanding application.

To begin with, Turkey is a pivotal country occupying an historic land bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Although it has experienced periods of autocratic rule, beginning with that of its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s and ’30s, it has been decidedly more democratic than any of its muslim neighbours to the south and east. Moreover it has long had a pro-western outlook, beginning at least in 1952, when it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, looks set once again to become Europe’s largest city, much as Constantinople was during the middle ages. In short, Turkey is too large and important to ignore.

However, its very size, coupled with its islamic culture, may keep it out of the EU over the long term. Of the current and potential member states of the EU, Turkey has the second highest population at some 64 million, outranked only by Germany with 82 million. France, Italy and the United Kingdom each have just under 60 million inhabitants. Most of the other countries have far fewer.

This might not be an insuperable obstacle to Turkish membership, were it not for the demographic future of Europe as a whole. According to population.com, most European countries will lose population over the next half century, if current birth and death rates continue. Italy will lose the most, having declined by as many as 15 million people. Only Cyprus, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway and Turkey will show a population increase. Nineteen others will decline.

In this context, the EU may eventually appear to be less than the vibrant new actor on the international scene that its proponents hope it to become. It may resemble nothing more than a newly merged megachurch, bringing together several fading predecessor bodies and thus masking the fact that its pews are increasingly empty and its membership ageing. The illusion of largeness and dynamism is there for a time, but the less rosy reality will become evident with the passage of time and of the generations.

Not so with Turkey. Not only is it expected to grow, but its growth will be phenomenal. By mid-century it is expected to have more than 100 million people, far outranking Germany’s 73 million. Were Turkey a part of the EU by then, and if it were still the poorest country in Europe, open borders and freedom of mobility would bring huge numbers of Turks into the heart of Europe. What the Ottoman armies were unable to do at the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, Turkey might accomplish overnight with its accession to the EU. At least that’s the fear of many European citizens, even if they are reluctant to express this openly.

Turkey has been waiting at the door of Europe for many years. A realistic prospect of EU membership might be incentive for it to clean up its political house, including improving its human rights record and resolving the nearly three-decades-old Cyprus stalemate. If it were to be definitively excluded from the new Europe, it might turn its attention eastwards, where several ethnically-related central Asian countries might make strategic, if undemocratic, allies in a new, potentially anti-western political bloc.

Since no one wants to see this, Turkey will likely be kept waiting for some time to come.

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