Saturday, October 9, 2004

Turkey seemed to shift geographically Westward on Wednesday, after the European Commission opened the way for it to become a full member of the European Union. A Turkish accession would bring Europe’s borders to the Middle East and pave the way for a groundbreaking merger of civilizations.

The European Commission found that Turkey had fulfilled reform criteria in areas including human rights and democratization, and that the country now merits formal accession talks with the European Union.

“The choice was very clear. Turkey was simply too good…[its] progress was too good” to turn it down, said Guenter Verhuegen, EU enlargement commissioner. The commission’s recommendation was a qualified rather than absolute affirmation of Turkey’s reform progress. It requires that Turkey continue to carry out improvements in its human-rights treatment of minorities. Turkey is also required to institute safeguards to prevent the military from exercising undue influence over civilian leadership.

Turkey has been a beacon of tolerance and democratic reform in the Middle East since the legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk put the country on the path to secular democracy in the early 1900s. And under the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which was based in Istanbul, a relatively high level of tolerance for Christians and Jews generally prevailed. And Turkey does, in some respects, have a European heritage, sharing Greek, Roman and Byzantine history. Turkey became an associate EU member in 1963. In 2002, EU leaders pledged to decide by the end of this year whether to open talks on Turkish entry into the organization.

The European Commission’s decision, while not binding, is expected to give Turkey a needed boost when the EU leaders vote on whether to begin entry talks at a December 17-18 summit in Brussels. Entry talks, if they begin as expected next year, could take anywhere from 10 to 15 years. There is much popular opposition in European countries to Turkey’s entry on economic and cultural grounds. French President Jacques Chirac has called for an eventual referendum on Turkey’s membership — a move which could ultimately foil Turkey’s accession.

The governments of Britain and Sweden, though, have been solidly behind Turkish membership. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said this week that Turkey had made an “extraordinary achievement” in winning the commission’s support for enlargement which “none should take away.” Mr. Straw added that Ankara’s membership talks should begin “without delay.”

EU leaders do face challenges in bringing Turkey, with its overwhelmingly Muslim population of 71 million people, into the customs union. By 2025, Turkey is projected to have the largest population in the EU. Europe would probably be protected from an influx of Turkish workers, whose per capita income is about $4,000, a fraction of the EU average. The European Commission recommended a so-called safeguard clause that could be invoked to restrict the numbers of Turkish migrants in times of economic difficulty. Still, a study prepared for the European Commission found that Turkey could receive between $20.2 billion and $34.2 billion in annual subsidies starting in 2025 if it were to join the EU.

However, that same study also made a critical point — that Turkish membership “would give clear evidence to the Muslim world that their religious beliefs are compatible with EU values including democracy, the rule of law and the respect of fundamental rights.” While some of Europe’s concerns about Turkish membership in the EU are pragmatic, others are based on prejudice. It would be a shame for such bigotry to prevail.

Turkey’s role as a cultural and physical bridge between East and West would be enhanced as a result of EU membership. The nation’s clout would rise with its accession to the EU, as would its ability to act as a mediator between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Turkish immigrants could also help moderate Muslim communities already in Europe, particularly in France and Britain, through their broad recognition of the benefits of secular democracy.

While these principles may seem abstract in comparison with the billions in subsidies that EU countries would be delivering to Turkey, they are immeasurably important. Turkey could become one of Europe’s most prized additions.

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