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What Turkey for what Union?

16 October 2005

Groucho Marx famously stated that he would never join a club that would accept him as a member. Today, the Turkish leadership might be well advised to take the same approach to the European Union (EU). Membership for the sake of it should not be the objective. Accession will only succeed when the Union is confident enough to welcome Turkey among its members. As far as Europe is concerned, the inclusion of this pivotal neighbour in the Union should not be a decision taken by default. Many regard the accession of Turkey as the final blow to European political integration: this need not be the case. Accepting Turkey must be a positive choice for a stronger, more dynamic and outward-looking Union. Such a decision cannot be taken now, but it should not be ruled out. Negotiations should start on time in order not to poison the relationship irretrievably. But this much should be clear from the start: Turkey will join the Union if and when both parties are ready for each other, according to the spirit and the letter of the Copenhagen criteria.
Were Turkey to join a Union in a state of lingering crisis and soul-searching, undermined by a lack of consensus on key policy priorities, the gains would be questionable. Were a weak and disheartened Europe to take Turkey on board, many of the features that have made the 'European way' attractive across the world might well swiftly fade. The public debate around the start of the accession negotiations on 3 October has developed along parallel paths. Sadly, there seems to be little scope for reconciling the strategic rationale of EU expansion towards a key geopolitical area with the political goal of a more cohesive Union.
Supporters of accession claim that Turkey is a strategic player across the Middle East. The admission of a powerful Muslim country into the European community of peace and prosperity would send a resounding message to the Islamic world that coexistence is possible, and prevent religious or ethnic extremism from gaining more ground in Turkey. In short, a win-win situation.
Conservatives argue that the cultural cohesion of Europe, essential for EU political integration, would be disrupted by the accession of a country that did not share the defining 'European' experiences of the Renaissance, Humanism, The Enlightenment and, of course, Christianity. This is a legitimate but contentious argument. After all, the very purpose of European integration has been to put the past behind us and build a shared future on the bedrock of common values. Furthermore, Europe is today an ethnically and culturally very diverse continent anyway.
A more solid objection comes from those who fear that further enlargement extended to a populous country, with demanding social and economic requirements and a strong sense of national pride, could undermine the deepening of integration. This argument deserves very careful consideration: for too long, the question of striking the right balance between enlarging and deepening has been postponed. The latest attempt to confront it, with the drafting of a Constitutional Treaty for a Europe of 25, and soon 27, has run into the sand. But, if a workable recipe is to be found, the question needs to be put in the right terms: there is no inescapable contradiction between deepening and enlarging. A more constructive approach would consist of regarding these two 'poles' of the debate on Europe as mutually reinforcing, so as not to turn a potentially win-win situation into a zero-sum game.
Two risks, however, must be averted. We cannot push ahead with negotiations as if the problems of the faltering political cohesion of the Union and the very shallow popular support for Turkey's accession did not exist. On the other hand, we must not hold the negotiations hostage to the Union's lack of institutional, political and economic reform. Inaction is not a good reason to deny Turkey membership. Strategic imperatives and the aspiration to strengthen the political and economic governance of the Union before expanding further are not incompatible. On the contrary, the strategic influence of a looser, fractious Union would be tenuous and episodic at best, whereas the external appeal of a more homogeneous but introverted and defensive Union would decline.
The EU should seize the opportunity of the debate over Turkey's accession in order to undertake a serious reflection on its own state and raison d'être. In fact, these fundamental questions -Turkey's entry and the nature of the Union - are two sides of the same coin: by addressing the former, one really faces the latter. By facing up to the challenge of fully integrating Turkey over the long term, the Union is forced to take a much needed look in the mirror. The outlook may not be particularly encouraging just now, but it would be wrong to rule out Turkey's eventual accession because of current difficulties.
This is the time to engage in a frank, democratic debate across the Member States on what the Union is, what the Union does, and how far it should expand. As far as the accession of Turkey is concerned, the prerequisite for this to happen is that negotiations start on 3 October. Their conclusion, however, will be subject not only to the fulfilment of enlargement conditionality by Turkey, but also to the achievement of adequate political, economic and institutional reform within the Union.