With Turkey’s date for EU entry talks now set, the deeper questions about culture and identity have become louder than ever. But, says Seyla Benhabib, Europe lacks the leadership to deal honestly with multiculturalism

At a recent meeting at the American Academy of Berlin, I asked Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, about the heated European discussion over Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Fischer’s answer was surprising. Assuring his audience of liberal political and academic dignitaries that Turkey would eventually be admitted into the European Union (EU), maybe in 10 or 15 years’ time, Fischer asked us to consider the following analogy.

Suppose, he said, Mexico wanted to become the 51st state of the United States. Mexico, he argued, is ethnically and religiously quite distinct from the majority US population and is a third-world country with a socio-economic level much lower than that of the majority. That, Fischer argued, is an analogy for what Turkey’s joining the EU would mean for the Union.

The audience, and particularly my American colleagues, was startled by this analogy and its ethnically prejudiced undertones. There is little question in my mind that Fischer did not intend his comments as an assertion of European moral and economic superiority. He was trying to explain the difficulties that Turkish accession, with a population of about 70 million Muslims, about 50% of whom are 18 or younger, would pose for the EU. Nevertheless, this tortured analogy by one of Europe’s most progressive politicians left unsettled questions about what is really at stake with Turkish accession.

As the countries of Europe move to forge “an ever closer union” (Treaty of Rome 1957), the traumas of the past, as well the dreams of the future, have triggered an unprecedented round of soul-searching. The Copenhagen criteria adopted in 1993 define conditions for admission to full membership very broadly. They include, first, a demonstration of a country’s commitment to functioning democratic institutions, human rights, the rule of law, and respect for and protection of minorities; second, a competitive market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure; and third, evidence that the country is able to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

By stipulating such broad institutional criteria, the European Union hoped to avoid much more controversial issues concerning cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic identities. The EU supposedly rests on a proven capacity to sustain a set of institutions, which, while originating in the west, are in principle capable of functioning on other soils and in other cultures as well. European identity is not given a thick cultural or historical coating; no exclusionary appeals are made to commonalities of history or faith, language or customs.

Despite these noble wishes to build the EU on “thin” liberal-democratic institutional criteria rather than on “thick” cultural identities, a deep conflict between institutional principles and identity has unfolded both within member-states and at their borders.

Among all the intractable problems facing the EU in this period of expansion, Turkey’s accession to membership is by far the most difficult and the most tangled. Turkey’s accession, which was ratified by a decision of the European Council in 1999, was postponed in December 2003 for a year. However, in December 2004 the Council of Ministers agreed that Turkey had fulfilled the conditions to resume accession talks.

Western or not?
Despite this EU decision, many Europeans on the left and the right continue to doubt whether Turkey is a “western” nation at all. Led by the German historian Hans Ulrich-Wehler they argue that the EU is not a union of “good Samaritans”, which is obliged to help a country with a questionable cultural, religious and political legacy – a country possibly guilty of genocide against the Armenian people.

Turkish intellectuals and politicians in favour of the union, by contrast, try to prove that Turkey is a “western” nation; that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president, was an Enlightenment reformer; that Turkey is the only viable democracy in the Muslim world; and that the country’s human rights record is improving.

At the gates of Vienna
These discussions evoke old prejudices while playing on contemporary fears. The fantasy is that the Turks are again at the gates of Europe, ready to overrun its cities with hordes of unemployed males who are not capable of integration; having stopped them once in 1389 in Kosovo and then again in 1566 before the gates of Vienna, Europeans now are committing collective suicide by inviting them into the Union. This is a view suggested by the Austrian Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party.

I suspect that these recriminations will continue for some time. Furthermore, these cultural issues are intractable since they are so deeply rooted in long collective memories. Yet they are no more intractable in the case of Turkey and the EU than in the case of Poland and Germany, for example. Despite those countries having a common religious heritage, the wounds of the World War II and Polish feelings of distrust toward the Germans are so intense that they led Poland to break ranks with France and Germany at the beginning of the Iraq War in March 2003 and to side with America.

Having remained neutral during World War II, having protected its Jewish population from decimation, and having offered sojourn to many fleeing Jewish and non-Jewish academics, politicians and artists alike, Turkey is not part of the most intensive collective neurosis which a united Europe still has to deal with – that is, the memories and horrors of the war.

The conflicts between Turkey and Europe are more ancient, harking back to 1389 (Kosovo), 1566 (the siege of Vienna), 1812 (the Greek war of Independence) and 1919 to 1923 (the Turkish War of Independence, the Greek-Turkish War and the Sèvres and Lausanne agreements). Ironically, an honest look at these episodes reveals the contrary of what European purists want to conclude. Turkey’s history is deeply entangled with the growth of the modern nation-state in Europe, and European great powers have for centuries harboured great designs vis-à-vis Ottoman territories, of which modern Turkey is the legatee. The Bosphorus doesn’t really separate Turkey from Europe after all.

These ancient battles and prejudices are refracted today through the experience of European societies with sizeable Turkish Gastarbeiter (guestworker) communities: Germany is home to roughly 1.9 million Turkish workers; the Netherlands to a little under a million, and France to about half a million. Altogether, there are close to 3.5 million Turkish nationals living in EU states. The local conditions in these communities, social and cultural integration, economic and social mobility, or its lack, are the lens through which many Europeans view Turkey.

Ironically, it is a Muslim conservative party, whose leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has roots in the Islamic movement, that is carrying out sweeping reforms to satisfy EU conditions. Under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi), several comprehensive reform packages have been passed – abolishing the death penalty, transforming the notorious National Security Council (Milli Guvenlik Kurulu) into an advisory body, reforming the penal code and establishing Kurdish language rights. Despite the flap concerning the criminal status of Turkey’s adultery laws, which nearly stalled talks with the EU last September, a conservative Muslim party is leading the demilitarization of the country, the liberalization of minority cultural and religious rights, and the growth of civil society.

The reasons are not difficult to decipher. Turkey’s accession to the EU is permitting the centrist and conservative majority of large and small business leaders, large and small farmers, some civil servants and workers finally to break free of the Kemalist civil-military bureaucratic elite that has controlled the country, with few interruptions, since 1923.

Delicate diplomacy
Will this strategy succeed? On the Turkish side, a lot will depend on whether the military elite of one of the largest standing armies of Europe can be convinced that integration into the EU will not mean forsaking the principles of secularism (laiklik) and the territorial unity of the country. Since the Iraq war and US support for Kurdish demands for some form of autonomy in the Mosul and Kirkuk regions, relations between the Turkish and US militaries have been strained. The Turkish military welcomed the narrow parliament vote that kept Turkey out of the war and from sending troops into Iraq. Any further steps toward European integration will mean devising a new security umbrella involving the Turkish military, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the EU as well as America. Nevertheless, accession to the EU remains popular in Turkey and has the support of the majority of the population.

What about Europe? Here again it is helpful to distinguish institutional from cultural concerns. Turkey’s accession would pose significant institutional challenges to the current architecture of the EU. With a population of roughly 70 million, Turkey would need to have fewer votes than Germany, but more than any other EU country, in both the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. As of November 1, 2004, the distribution of votes in the Council is: Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom – 29 votes each; Spain and Poland – 27 each; Netherlands 13, and so on. Where would Turkey be placed? Based on its population size, it should be included in the first group. But this is hardly conceivable and would meet a lot of resistance. Is it possible, then, to devise a senatorial group within the Council, drawn from equal numbers of representatives from each county, and a parliamentary group based on population size? Should seniority of membership in the EU itself be a factor in devising an upper chamber of deputies?

Likewise, how many seats will Turkey be assigned in the EU Parliament? And how can this be negotiated without being obviously discriminatory and insulting to the equal dignity of all countries involved?

Economically, Turkey is a huge market. Despite a low GNP it is a dynamic country, rich in minerals, agricultural land, produce and beautiful coastlines. Precisely because British, Italian, Dutch, as well as French and German, enterprises are so aware of Turkey’s potential as an economic partner, there is considerable interest in Turkey’s membership. Just as the integration of east and central European countries was considered a boon for German capital, Turkey’s integration will prove a boon for British, Dutch, Italian as well as German firms.

Once Turkey, with its huge agrarian hinterland, is admitted, job creation in sectors such as communications, construction, banking and finance, and tourism will be offset by losses in the agricultural sector. The European CAP (the Common Agricultural Policy) may be seriously destabilized in consequence. This aspect of integration, already hard enough with Poland, will prove much harder with Turkey. Consequently, there will be a desire for increased emigration from Turkey, which the EU will deny, with the consequence that Turkey’s admission will necessarily lead to the watering down of the rights of EU citizens to move freely across national borders.

Cultural xenophobia
All these institutional difficulties are challenging, but not insurmountable. Of greater gravity is the cultural xenophobia against Islam now sweeping through Europe. The headscarf debate in France; the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the ensuing attacks on mosques and other Islamic institutions; the thinly veiled discourse of discrimination against the “second-class treatment” of Turkish women in the German media, are but indicators of a much deeper malaise regarding cultural coexistence with Islam.

I am less confident than I have been in the last decade that there is the political will in Europe to steer Turkey’s integration along the proper channels. European political culture has taken a turn to the right – German and British social democracy notwithstanding – and I see lack of leadership to deal honestly and imaginatively with cultural and religious difference. European multiculturalism is a paper tiger.

Turning Turkish membership down at this point would be a huge diplomatic blow to the EU. Not only Middle Eastern countries but many developing ones as well – from India to Indonesia – would see this as a clear sign of narrow Eurocentrism.

The only reasonable way forward then is to give Turkey a firm accession date rather than the “open ended” negotiations with no guarantees of success that was agreed in December. Both parties should continue rigorous negotiations around the Copenhagen criteria and the Acquis Communautaire (the body of shared EU law). The road ahead is arduous and uncertain, but fixing an accession date, which is being demanded by all Turkish groups, would restore Turkey’s sense of pride and self-confidence as a modern democratic republic. It would enable the EU to act as a broker for further democratic transformation of Turkey; would signal to the Muslim world that Euro-Islam is a real historical option; and would increase the EU’s prestige as a geopolitical power-broker.

Seyla Benhabib
Seyla Benhabib is professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University and director of the programme in ethics, politics and economics. She was born in Istanbul, Turkey, was educated in America, and has lived for many years in Germany.