Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Turkey and the EU

After embarrassing, drawn-out "negotiations", the EU's foreign ministers have agreed to honour the commitments made to Turkey about accession. It is now possible that Turkey will be a full member by 2014.

The trouble is that the undertakings made by foreign ministers at EU meetings rarely have any connection with what their voters want. This was so at the time of the original undertakings and remains so now. The role of Frau Plassnik of Austria, in aiming to offer Turkey only a reduced partnership with the EU, gave voice to the concerns of the majority of European voters.

The whole subject of Turkey's accession is plagued by hoary preconceptions. Most Europeans who feel uneasy about it do so because they view Turkey as a large poor country which will have to be baled out by EU taxes. This is shortsighted: it would be true if Turkey were to join today, but by 2014, relative strengths will have changed fundamentally. Turkey has a fast growing economy. Demographically, it is a young country. The EU, by contrast, is neither; it has minimal levels of growth and is an ageing society. It desperately needs more growth and younger people.

The religious question is even more vexed: whilst Turkey is a secular society (and a fine, rare example of how that can be achieved with a Muslim population) it is overwhelmingly Muslim and in an age of Islamist terrorism this obviously worries many. The question here is whether it is really wise for the EU to become an ever-emptier Christian's club of helpless elderly people living on their pensions, trying vainly to keep out the seething masses of Muslims outside its gates. Even if that kind of exclusion were possible, it would be undesirable.

On another level, Turkey's accession to the EU will fundamentally change the political face of the EU. Using the old distinction between ever "wider" and "deeper" union, Turkey will hugely "widen" the EU, its 70 million citizens currently represent the second largest European population after Germany. This will, one assumes, render impossible the "deepening" fantasies of the older generation of Eurocrats of creating a crazed bureaucratic Moloch.

The debate about Turkey is thus also a debate about what the EU should be. The French, Germans and Austrian governments (for example) want a EU which is highly regulated, conforming to a code of EU laws and "guidelines" in every aspect of national life. The British and Dutch (for example) want a looser, less interfering union more focussed on cooperation in trade. To the first grouping, Turkey's accession presents insuperable problems. To the second, Turkey offers an opportunity to chop off some of the spare fat of the EU.

The benefits to Turkey itself aren't especially clear-cut either. On the positive side, the process of joining the EU is benefiting justice, freedom of speech, the role of women, and the elimination of torture. The EU seems to be providing a framework and some helpful impulses here. It may be that these will end up making Turkish society more pleasant for more of its citizens. Then again, if taken too far, and into less obviously meritorious areas, Turkey could end up saddled with a set of outdated regulations.

As I wrote in July, "I am delighted that the Turks are still minded to join us in our gently decaying, would-be superstate." But the devil is in the detail, and one of the details is that some countries will put Turkey's accession to the vote. If current opinion polls are to be believed, some 80% of EU citizens would not support Turkish accession. Not for the first time, the gap between the ambitions of the EU politicians and their electorates is yawning. The reason is simple: being a success on the EU stage has little or nothing to do with connecting to voters. The rejection of the draft EU constitution by voters in Holland and France (despite taxpyer-funded promotion of the document by most of the political mainstream), was a sign of this.

Normally speaking, voters don't get given the chance to speak on such weighty matters. If they did, EU politicians might show them more respect, maybe even opening up debates about the weighty matters. It would be better for all concerned if this happened with the Turkey accession debate sooner rather than later.

Telegraph News Turkey wins deal to start EU talks

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