- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

When the European Union accepted an application for membership from Turkey two months ago, the Turkish delegation in Brussels hosted an impromptu celebration and broke out the orange juice. As Muslims, they drank no alcohol.

In the EU headquarters, celebratory champagne often flows to mark a successful negotiation, and some officials saw a small but significant sign of complications.

On Oct. 3, the European Union overcame the reservations of member state Austria and began formal talks for Ankara’s entry.

Issues of human rights, economics and security will be dissected in extensive talks before Turkey is admitted, but a senior official in Brussels who asked not to be identified by name predicted equally sticky problems of what he called “the orange juice versus champagne variety.”

In other words, a lot will depend on how far both sides are prepared to go to fit a country that is rediscovering its Islamic roots into an institution whose 25 member states are historically and culturally Christian but emphatically secular. Turkey is officially secular, but has undergone an Islamic revival that has led to the election of a religious-oriented government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The European Union rejected Vatican pressure to include even a reference to Europe’s Christian roots in the preamble of the draft constitution. Even so, the Christian culture inevitably dominates the union. For example, a regulation requires heavy trucks to stay off European highways on weekends, which in Europe is understood to mean Saturday and Sunday. In Turkey, weekend means Friday and Saturday, and the one-day difference has economic implications.

Turkey’s strict observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan also is likely to raise questions. In most Islamic countries, all activity, including the business of government, tends to slow down during the month of fasting, prayer and charity. How will this affect Ankara’s role in the European Union? The counterargument could be that Brussels comes to a similar standstill in the month of August, as Europeans take off for their summer vacations. In that case, it is the whole European Union, not just one member state, that goes into slow motion.

Europe’s so-called “integralists” in Brussels — those who see the European Union as a movement whose mission is ultimately to meld its members into one political, economic and cultural system — have more reservations about Turkey’s entry than do “Euro-skeptics,” including many in Britain who want to limit the European Union’s role to close cooperation, with minimum loss of sovereignty and national identity. A conglomeration of individual states with strong economic and political ties clearly would be an easier fit for Ankara, eliminating some of the cultural and religious stumbling blocks.

Despite the problems, the senior EU official cited above said the consensus in Brussels is that Turkey’s application eventually will be successful, but the process could take more than the predicted decade. “Once the negotiations begin, they tend to take on a momentum of their own and are hard to stop,” the official said. “But as things now stand they could take 15 years.”

Most EU member governments are on record as supporting Turkey’s entry. In private, some officials acknowledge public unease because for centuries Turkey — then the seat of the Ottoman Empire — was Europe’s No. 1 enemy.

A third of EU member states — including Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Hungary, the Czech Republic (Bohemia), Slovenia, Slovakia and parts of Austria — once lived under Ottoman domination, some of them well into the 19th century, or fought it.

Europeans still celebrate important dates in history that recorded major victories against the “Sublime Porte,” a French translation of the name of the gate outside the sultan’s palace in Constantinople, now called Istanbul, the government center of the former empire.

Sept. 8, Malta’s national day, commemorates the lifting of the Turkish siege of that Mediterranean island in 1565. In the battle of Lepanto in 1571, a combined European fleet defeated the Turkish fleet off the coast of Greece. In 1683, the armies of Poland and Austria decisively trounced the Ottoman army in the battle of Vienna. That action was the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the kingdoms of Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Washington’s open support of Turkey’s EU aspirations brings a shiver of irritation in Brussels.

The argument that Ankara could be a valuable bridge between Europe, representing the West, and the Islamic world is well-taken. But in the eyes of many, Turkey remains an awkward fit — as awkward, the senior European official contends acidly, as if Turkey wanted to join the United States.

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