Turkey’s last lap towards EU membership has finally started and this is good news for Europe as much as it is for the only Muslim country that has embraced secularisation.
The long and arduous road initiated by Kemal Ataturk in 1923, today sees Turkey a functioning multi-party democracy with a very westernised economic model.
The Turks do have their failings. Much more has to be done to improve the situation of the minority Kurdish population in the east of the country, who have suffered repression and a systematic attack on their identity.
More needs to be done to put women’s rights on a sounder footing, resolve the Cypriot impasse and reducing the army’s influence in the country’s political processes.
Hopefully, the negotiating process between the EU and Turkey will enable the latter to continue its reform process. Respect for human rights and the rule of law, endorsement of minority rights and the creation of solid democratic foundations should unfailingly be preconditions for Turkey’s eventual membership of the EU.
In the words of Commission President Barroso, during the coming years, which will be difficult for both sides, Turkey must win the hearts and minds of Europe’s peoples. It will not be enough for Turkey to garner the support of the individual member states. A vast majority of Europeans still look at Turkey with a suspicious eye.
The Turks have to be convincing in their arguments and have to put Europe’s mind at rest that they will act as a mature democratic country.
Islam should not be the stumbling block for Turkey’s accession. Those who argue against Turkey’s EU membership on the basis of religion and tradition, not least the Catholic Church, are undermining the European Union’s secular foundations.
Even if Christianity played an important part in Europe’s history, Europeans have always been a diverse lot. While a person’s right to subscribe and profess to a religion of his or her choice is part and parcel of the EU’s founding principles, no religion should be given privilege over another by a secular state.
Europe is already home to a substantial Muslim population and blocking Turkey’s EU membership on the basis of religion will create logical problems when it is the turn of countries like Albania and Bosnia, which are predominantly Muslim, to join the bloc.
Conversely, Turkey must also understand that secularisation is a hallmark of Europe’s identity.
Turkey would be the second largest European state after Germany with a population of 70 million but rather than seeing this as a threat to the EU’s balance of power, this would be an opportunity for a renewed dialogue between North and South, West and East. In any case, the concept of a central European power bloc involving France, Germany, Italy and the UK has already been eroded by the entry of eight former communist countries and two Mediterranean island states.
But there is a strategic element to Turkey’s EU membership. The Muslim country’s size would further consolidate Europe’s large domestic market and more important is Turkey’s location in the Middle East.
Bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, commanding a strong presence in the Black Sea and enjoying a common border with the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus, Turkey could offer Europe a strategic presence in an oil-rich region.
It would also give Europe more leverage in the controversies that dog the region and which have seen the United States take on a leading role. The tortuous democratisation process in Iraq, Iran’s flirtations with nuclear power, the Palestinian conflict, Lebanon’s difficult transition to civilian rule and the intermittent internal strife in the Caucasian republics will increasingly require Europe to have a say in the conflicts just off its eastern-most borders.
And with Turkey as a fully functioning EU member state, Europe’s influence in the region could only increase.
Rejecting Turkey would be a mistake. It would harden the position of Turkish nationalists, isolate the country from Europe and alienate the only democratic Islamic state giving Islamic radicals in the Muslim world a good excuse to continue fanning the flames of religious hatred.
The road to Turkey’s EU membership is a long one indeed but how tough that road will be depends very much on the good will and diplomatic skills of both sides. The end result could very well be a win-win situation for all.