Turkey has been a trusted and valued member of NATO for a long time, as it has been an associate member of European economic organisations. Turkey first applied to join what was then the EEC in 1959 and signed an association agreement with it in 1963, which strongly implied that it would later become a member. In 1995 it joined the Custom Union, and the EU officially accepted it as a candidate for membership four years later. And, finally, the EU agreed last December that Ankara could start entry talks on October 3. But some EU member-states insisted that the talks could start only if Turkey recognised Cyprus, which became a member of the EU in May, while others insisted that the talks would not be about Turkey's full membership but about "privileged links". Nor surprisingly, Ankara, which had fulfilled the previous conditions set for full membership, refused to comply with the new ones because they were felt to be humiliating, and the schedule of talks seemed to be doomed.
However, EU member-states began to modify their position slightly, agreeing that the talks would be about membership after all, and by September 22 the negotiations between the two parties appeared to be on schedule. But very little has in fact changed, as the conditions which Ankara found humiliating do not attach to the opening of the talks but to Turkey's full membership of the EU. Turkey must, for instance, recognise Cyprus if it is to become a member, and those member-states that object to its admission will continue to do so. Thus nothing has really changed and it is again insulting to expect Ankara to be happy that the talks will begin on October 3, as scheduled. In any case, the membership talks might conceivably last ten years or more, as EU officials openly admit.
It is ridiculous that a country that has been a loyal ally of the West should be treated in this manner, while former enemies that were recently members of the Soviet Union have been readily admitted. After all, Ankara has fulfilled all the conditions demanded of it by the EU: it has abolished the death penalty, accepted Kurdish as a language for teaching in schools, scrapped state security courts, revised the penal code and tightened civilian control over the country, for instance This disdainful attitude of the Europeans explains why support for EU membership is decreasing in Turkey itself. Recent polls show that backing has fallen from about 93 percent to about 63 percent of Turkey's population.
The animosity in the EU towards Turkey and dislike of its aspirations for membership are evident not only among the majority of its people but also among their political and religious leaders, who publicly argue that a Muslim country cannot belong to a Christian society. This, for instance, explains why Turkey's application for membership became a prominent issue inGermany's recent elections. Mrs Angela Merkel, whose party won a simple majority of votes, rejected Turkish accession, conceding only "privileged partnership". Even liberal German political leaders backed her, somewhat unexpectedly. On September 15, for instance, she won support from Helmut Schmidt, the former Social Democrat chancellor, who said that he completely supported her position in an interview with the liberal weekly Die [Das? ] Zeit. Saying that it was nonsense to suggest that Turkey could ever join the EU, he added: "The Turks belong to a completely different cultural domain from us. Economic cooperation, yes, customs union, yes, but no freedom of movement for population excesses [sic.] that arise in Turkey."
But it is not only the European on the street and European politicians who object to Turkey's membership of the EU. Even Benedict XVI, the new pope, has asked whether admitting a Muslim country to the EU is compatible with "European values". This has made him a controversial figure in Turkey. But even so, president Ahmed Necdet Sezer has invited him to visitTurkey next year, the foreign ministry said on September 15. If the pope in fact visits Turkey, he will be the third pontiff to do so: a clear demonstration that the overwhelmingly Muslim (though officially secular) country is not as hostile to Europeans on religious grounds as Europeans are to Muslims.
In fact successive Turkish regimes have been keen to show how European their country's values are and how well it qualifies to be a member of the EU. This explains their readiness fulfill the conditions to be met before accession talks can be held or even considered. Ankara is required to show that it is modern, democratic, regretful of its treatment of minorities such as the Armenians, and also prepared to compensate them now. How keen the current regime is to comply is shown by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's reaction to the cancellation of a conference in Istanbul on the massacre of Armenians in 1915.
A court in Istanbul ordered the cancellation of the conference on September 22 on the application of the Turkish Lawyers' Union – "a hardline nationalist organisation", as one EU newspaper has described it. But although the office of the governor of Istanbul announced that permission had not been given for the conference to go ahead, Erdogan reacted strongly to the court's decision to cancel it. "This decision has nothing to do with democracy and modernity," he said; "I condemn this decision." In fact it is his unwarranted public interference in judicial affairs, and his anxiety to comply with the dictates of the EU that have nothing to do with democracy. Likewise nor has the refusal of EU member-states to treat their Turkish minorities anything to do with democracy. In fact they are treated so badly, despite most of them being citizens of the countries they are in or have legal residence of, that it is strange that Erdogan and other Turkish leaders are not exercised about this blatant departure from democratic practice.
It is no exaggeration to conclude that it is Ankara's readiness to dance to the tune played by Europe that is encouraging the EU to treat it so shabbily and keep it at the EU's gates for so many years. Turkey is a large and strategically important country, and the EU countries are interested in maintaining economic ties with it, as German chancellor Schmits (for one) confirms. Paradoxically, one way Ankara can raise the EU's interest in having it as a member would be to forge and strengthen ties with other Muslim countries and work publicly and seriously for a Muslim union, while suspending its efforts to join the European Union.