Europe Cannot Afford to Reject Turkey!

One issue in the European election campaign will be Turkey's interest in joining the EU. In spite of conservative fears, Europe cannot afford to reject Turkey. A commentary by Baha Güngör

photo: AP

​​If Europe rejected Turkey, the EU would deprive itself of an opportunity to influence the democratisation process in an important Muslim country. Turkey would lose much of its appeal as a role model combining Islam with liberal modernity. Europe must treat Turkey according to exactly those standards that it wants Ankara to fulfil.

Europe without Turkey is unthinkable, Christian Democrats pronounced in the 1980s, when that country became socially acceptable again after the end of its military rule. But today that seems ancient political history. Now conservative politicians are predicting the total collapse of the European Union if it moves any closer to Turkey.

Today, Social Democrats and the Greens are promoting Turkey's future membership of the EU. Ironically, they considered this unthinkable only 10 years ago considering Ankara's human rights abuses and harsh policy towards minorities. Opponents of Turkey joining the EU membership will highlight the issue in the European election campaign, but this will not lead to the objective debate which is urgently needed.

Associate member of the EU since 1963

It is a fact that Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union since 1963. At that time the country on Europe's rim was promised acceptance as a full member if it fulfilled certain criteria.

It is also true that the European Common Market consisting of six members at the time has grown into a European Union with 25 members today. However, it is precisely the EU's growth which makes it vital that Turkey embraces European values and norms more closely. That would influence Europe's relationship with other cultures and religions.

Whether Turkey will convincingly adopt western values will not least depend on whether Europe treats the country in accordance with its own professed standards of democracy, human rights, protection of minorities and tolerance towards other cultures and religions.

Opponents like to state that Turkey as an Islamic country would be out of place in the EU. This, however, is merely used as a pretext. For it is certainly not new that Turkey's population is almost exclusively Muslim.

This population is also overwhelmingly in favour of EU-entry, consists of a diversity of ethnic groups and has put the co-existence of pluralist democracy and a politically secular Islam into practice. This is precisely why Turkey's path to Europe must not be strewn with obstacles.

Losing influence on democratisation process

If the EU rejects Turkey, it will deprive itself of the opportunity to influence the process of democratisation. And Turkey would lose a considerable amount of appeal within the Islamic world. Europe cannot afford not to support with all the means at its disposal a country which brings Islam and democracy together like no other.

It is of course no secret that Turkey still has a long way to go before reaching the EU acceptance it applied for back in 1987. Turkey itself openly admits this fact. Despite the speeding-up of reforms under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, the implementation of many constitutional and legal reforms is proving difficult.

Hopes of an early EU acceptance are also misplaced from an economic point of view, as long as Turkey remains a long way from fulfilling the criteria required. But it is important that good-will can still be seen on both sides.

Not least, Turkey's economic credibility and credit-worthiness are at stake. As long as there is a prospect of acceptance, investment will flow into Turkey. That in turn creates jobs, supports development programmes and the fight against inflation.

"Privileged partnership" is not enough

The "privileged partnership" between the EU and Turkey suggested by Angela Merkel, the head of the German Christian Democrats, is not enough. After all, Turkey has already been enjoying these privileges for more than 40 years.

Should it, however, one day occur to Ankara in the course of negotiations that a "privileged partnership" might actually be better than becoming totally subject to the EU and having to give up a great deal of sovereignty, that would be a different matter altogether.

Baha Güngör

Baha Güngör is the head of Deutsche Welle's Turkish radio service. He has been working for German media nationally and internationally since 1976 and has served as a Turkey correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

This article previously appeared in Development and Cooperation 05/2004

For more information see our dossier Turkey and Europe