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"Any suggestion that Mexicans are fundamentally different from Americans should be taken as racist on its face; America, after all, is a pluralistic society, and Mexico is hardly the alien civilization that some (really, just Samuel Huntington) would suggest."

-- David Plotz, Even Racist Europeans Are Right Sometimes

The Current: December 2005

Even Racist Europeans Are Right Sometimes: Why The EU Should Be Cautious On Turkey

David Plotz

Imagine this: the European Union, as an official policy, wants to promote the admission of Mexico as the 51st state in the U.S. Editorials supportive of this policy appear on a regular basis in The Guardian, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel; Tony Blair lectures George Bush about it every time they meet; Vicente Fox routinely accuses Americans of racism for resisting his demands. And the argument is not entirely unreasonable. Mexico is the world's twelfth largest economy, with a per capita GDP of nearly 700 billion dollars. It is already one of the U.S.'s principal trading partners. With a population of more than 100 million, it would increase the U.S. population by about 33 percent, mostly bringing in lower-income workers who would then have unrestricted access to American industry. Mexican migration across the already porous border would decrease, as it was meant to under NAFTA, and U.S. outsourcing to Mexico would completely end (which is to say, it would no longer be called outsourcing). The issue of "illegal immigration" would be rendered obsolete.

Moreover, Mexico is already ranked as a "free" country by Freedom House, both in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Integrating Mexico into the American political system would be difficult, but not impossibly so. Millions of Mexicans already live in the U.S., where they provide an enormous boost to the economy. The cultural tensions between Mexicans and other Americans are relatively minor and tend to be exaggerated. The Democratic and Republican parties are falling all over each other trying to lock up the Mexican vote. Any suggestion that Mexicans are fundamentally different from Americans should be taken as racist on its face; America, after all, is a pluralistic society, and Mexico is hardly the alien civilization that some (really, just Samuel Huntington) would suggest.

Indeed, integrating Mexico into the United States would send a positive message to all of Latin America. It would show that rather than treating the expanding population of the third world as a threat, America is eager to embrace diversity and to work for the betterment of all peoples. It would reward Mexico for its considerable progress towards full liberalization and democratization in the past few decades, thus setting an example for other countries in the region. It would also force the U.S. to stay more actively engaged in Latin American affairs, instead of pretending that it can ignore the challenge posed by ideologues like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Really, these points seem so obvious that for the U.S. to disregard them can only be a sign of the apathy and bigotry of this generation of American politicians.

If this line of thought is still not entirely convincing, imagine what it must be like for ordinary Europeans to grapple with the more plausible prospect of Turkey joining the European Union in the near future. Although the European Union is not exactly the same kind of political unit as the United States (it is still unclear precisely what kind of political unit it is), its economic relationship with Turkey is surprisingly similar to the U.S.'s relationship with Mexico. But unlike Mexico, Turkey actually has been trying to join its larger, wealthier neighbor for decades, and Brussels has shown mixed signals regarding whether it will eventually reward these efforts. In American foreign policy circles it is practically an article of faith that Europe should embrace Turkey as quickly as possible, for more or less the same reasons listed in the hypothetical situation above. In particular, Turkish EU accession is a pet cause of the neoconservative movement, which has generally argued that accepting Turkey would force Europe to be actively engaged in the heart of the Middle East, while at the same time rewarding a predominantly Muslim state for considerable progress toward liberal democracy.

But tensions over Turkey run high in Europe. With a population of more than 70 million and growing, Turkey is projected to be the most populous state in Europe (if, in fact, it is in Europe), surpassing Germany. Indeed, if Germany's rapidly aging population is to continue to grow, it will have to do so by absorbing larger and larger numbers of working-class immigrants–most likely from Turkey. Turkish immigrants are no more popular in Germany than Algerian immigrants in France or Pakistani immigrants in the United Kingdom–or Mexican immigrants in Arizona, for that matter. Were Turkey to join the EU, it would become far easier for Turks to migrate to Germany and other more prosperous EU states. In theory, this would bode well for the economies of every country involved, but it can hardly be appealing to the average European.

To put it bluntly, Europeans are concerned because Turkey is the first Muslim nation to be considered for EU membership. The fact that Turkey is officially secular, and has only recently elected nominally Muslim parties to power (in the same sense that most European countries have mainstream "Christian" parties), is small consolation. On some level, many Europeans are uncomfortable with the idea of bringing 70 million dark-skinned and relatively poor Muslims into their union with the stroke of a pen. It is easy to dismiss their concerns as simple racism or Islamophobia, and undoubtedly these play a major role. Considering the backlash against the millions of Muslims already living in the EU, and particularly the recent rioting in France, it is understandable that many Turks perceive opposition to their country's accession as being rooted in bigotry. But there is considerably more at stake here than ignorance.

It is not clear why the average European would benefit from Turkey's inclusion in the EU. It would streamline economic decisions, but so would any number of less binding free trade agreements. It would make it easier to hire cheap labor in Europe, but clearly not everyone wants that. On the flip side, Turkey would introduce all sorts of unpredictable new elements into continental politics. As the largest EU state, it would wield enormous influence in the European Parliament in Brussels, which makes decisions affecting the everyday lives of all Europeans and already is not particularly trusted by the public. This would make Turkey's unique domestic and international responsibilities of direct concern to all Europeans, a burden few of them would ever want.

Turkey, like Mexico, has made enormous progress in the past decade toward meeting western standards of human rights, civil liberties, and democratic governance. And like Mexico, Turkey still has a long way to go (Freedom House, for the record, only ranks Turkey as "partly free" in its 2005 report, placing it below Mexico and every EU member state). Turkish security forces often employ torture, beatings, and arbitrary arrests in their dealings with leftists and minority separatists. Revenge killings, a form of barbarism more famous in places like Pakistan, are still tolerated in Turkey. Turkey's human rights record is particularly bad concerning the treatment of the country's largest minority group, the Kurds. This treatment somewhat resembles the conduct of new EU states such as Slovakia (with its large and underrepresented Roma minority) and Estonia (with its virtually disenfranchised Russian minority). However, the failure of the EU to significantly curtail discrimination in its newest members demonstrates that EU membership is not likely to improve the status of the Kurds, as some advocates of Turkish accession suggest.

And then there is the small matter of genocide denial. Like perennial EU outsider Russia and unlike founding EU member Germany, Turkey has not dealt with or repented for its authoritarian and genocidal leanings during the twentieth century. During World War I, the Young Turk government instigated the deportation, and effectively the mass murder, of several million Armenians. This is a fact universally acknowledged by historians of all ideological stripes. Today there are almost no Armenians in eastern Anatolia, which for two millennia was the Armenian cultural heartland. The significance of this was recognized early on by Hitler, who once claimed that history would vindicate him for the Holocaust, asking rhetorically "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" Nowadays, lots of people do, but not the Turkish government,1 which refuses to even acknowledge the genocide, let alone apologize for it. To do so would taint the reputation of the early Turkish republic, which is still held above criticism in this theoretically open society. The late authoritarian founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is regarded as a sort of secular deity in a manner reminiscent of fascism and not at all current in any EU member state. His face appears on every denomination of currency and on monuments and posters all over the major Turkish cities. Ataturk's legacy is central to the modern Turkish national self-conception, and criticism of him or his decisions regarding the Armenians and other minorities is taboo.

Turkey's actions against the Armenians may seem like distant memories to some, but to the globally dispersed Armenian community, they represent an open wound, especially in the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenian forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, a tiny Armenian enclave which declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991. In retaliation, Azerbaijan cut off all trade with Armenia, prompting Turkey to do the same. Since 1991, Turkey has sought influence over the Turkic nations in the former Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (the last two are ranked among the least free societies on earth). While courting oil-rich Azerbaijan, this policy has come at the expense of Armenia, which is tiny, landlocked, resource-starved, and facing a severe population crisis as a result of Turkey's prolonged blockade, with an estimated third of its population living illegally in Russia. In short, Turkey is completing with trade barriers what it began ninety years ago by force: the expulsion of Armenians from the Caucasus region.

In a prospect that makes neoconservatives salivate and virtually everyone else recoil, Turkish entry into the EU would bring the EU's borders up to Syria, Iran, and Iraq (absorbing Mexico, incidentally, would force the US to share borders with Guatemala and Belize, which sounds a bit less troublesome). Although new EU states are currently going through a transitional period in which they continue to perform document checks along their borders with fellow members, eventually all EU states will cease to do any border checks at all. In Western Europe, it is already difficult for a motorist to tell where France ends and Germany begins. Try to imagine having only a single border check separating London and Paris from Baghdad and Teheran, and European apprehension at Turkish entry becomes far more understandable. It cannot help that Turkey's massive and restless Kurdish minority is concentrated in precisely these eastern border regions, and there is a strong sense of ethnic solidarity with the similarly large Kurdish populations across the border in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The Turkish government places a high priority on ensuring that Kurdish national aspirations are suppressed throughout the region, a priority which most Europeans probably do not share.

Turkish membership is also a frightening prospect for an organization that barely knows how to define itself, either territorially or constitutionally. From a territorial standpoint, the EU has gone through periodic expansions throughout its history, but so far it has only done so within continental Europe or islands in close proximity to Europe2. Only three percent of Turkish territory lies on the continent of Europe, but this obscures a larger truth: Europe is not actually a continent. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is completely arbitrary and has been redefined throughout history. It represents a civilizational or cultural, rather than a geographical, distinction. Europeans know this, and it makes them wary of defining Europe too broadly. If Turkey can join and pull Europe's boundaries deep into what is traditionally thought of as Asia, why not Israel, Georgia, Lebanon, or Morocco? Europeans are not even sure whether they want their union to contain closer neighbors like Albania, Macedonia, Belarus, or Ukraine. Scarcely anyone can imagine integrating Russia, another large quasi-European state. To integrate Turkey would send a clear message that neither geography nor culture is necessarily a barrier to membership in the EU, which is a psychological leap most Europeans are not yet ready to take.

Turkish foreign policy also poses unique challenges to the internal stability of the EU. In 1974, Turkey invaded the nearby island nation of Cyprus and occupied the northern half of the island, where the population is predominantly Turkish (the southern half is mainly Greek). A decade later, Turkish Cypriots declared an independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus under the protection of the Turkish military. Turkey is the only country in the world to recognize the government of Northern Cyprus. In 2004, Cyprus joined the EU, although its membership in practice only applies to the unoccupied south. For Cyprus and Greece itself (also an EU member), Turkey's thirty-year occupation is both illegal and a major provocation. While EU involvement is clearly necessary for the resolution of this conflict (and there are signs that Turkey may back down), it would be extremely perilous for the EU's internal stability if Turkey were admitted while Cyprus is still an active issue. With the minor exception of the Spanish-British disagreement over the future of Gibraltar, there are no serious remaining territorial disputes among the current 25 EU members.

Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a major voice in Brussels, once famously described Turkish membership in the EU as "the end of Europe." Giscard d'Estaing should know better than anyone how insecure Europeans are about the very nature of the EU, and how unprepared they are for more radical changes in its membership. As one of the main drafters of the EU Constitution, Giscard d'Estaing had to watch his dreams of a more integrated Europe evaporate this past summer, when France and the Netherlands, two founding members of the organization, both rejected his efforts in popular referenda. Although this was a devastating blow to the Eurocrats in Brussels, it came as a relief to Europeans who are nervous about the many new laws and regulations the EU wants to impose on a disparate array of countries.

The EU has recovered from this debacle much faster than some observers anticipated (in June there was much paranoid talk of countries abandoning the euro or of European integration collapsing entirely), but the referenda served as a reminder that so far no one knows what the EU ultimately is going to be. Will it be a free trade pact? A defensive bloc? A forum for resolving regional disputes? A sovereign state analogous to the U.S.? All of the above? What will be its relationship to NATO, the military alliance that includes most of its current members as well as Turkey, Canada and the U.S.? Some of its leading states, such as France, envision the EU as a counterweight to the U.S., while others, such as the U.K., regard it as serving transatlantic interests. Until the EU has a constitution ratified by all of its members, and therefore some vague idea of its ultimate purpose, any talk of Turkish accession is reckless. Already many Europeans feel that the EU expanded much too quickly in 2004, and they are not prepared to let that happen again.

Proponents of Turkish accession tend to brush off most of these issues, pointing out that the promise of eventual membership has prompted the Turkish government to make considerable progress on nearly every one of them. With some exceptions, this is true, and of course it is encouraging. Turkey's boosters can proudly point to rapid democratization and the extension of human rights. For instance, Turkey recently abolished the death penalty (an absolute prerequisite for membership), and has begun easing restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language (though it is still banned in public schools), both of which are attempts by Ankara to impress Brussels.

But the underlying logic of this method is troubling. Is it democratization, or is it bribery? Do diplomats even know the difference? The aforementioned Samuel Huntington has suggested that if Turkey's hopes of EU membership are ever permanently rebuffed, it will prompt a violent retreat into authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism, which in turn will send a bad signal to the entire Muslim world. This is almost certainly nonsense; Turkey has been modernizing and secularizing since the 1920s, long before the EU even existed. But to the extent that Turkey would regress in any way if EU membership were rejected, this can only testify to the shallowness of the reforms themselves. A truly liberal democratic society does not require the approval of outside countries to make internal progress. Although every current EU member has had to pass certain reforms to qualify for membership, the vast majority had already established political and economic stability independent of any promise of membership. Turkey is not the only potential EU member that is contorting its politics to impress Brussels (Romania and Croatia come to mind), but it is by far the most significant example. If Turkish democracy cannot handle rejection by the EU, it is probably not qualified in the first place.

This spring, I had the opportunity to travel to Istanbul, Turkey's largest and wealthiest city, and one of the few located in what is traditionally called continental Europe. Istanbul is a beautiful, safe and relaxing city, and I had a wonderful time there. At times it felt as though I were in Italy, albeit with mosques filling in for cathedrals. Judging by the number of flags I saw, both Turkish nationalism and optimism about joining the EU run high in Istanbul. But all the same, it was clear that this was not Europe, not even what Donald Rumsfeld calls "New Europe." Literally within three blocks of the Hagia Sofia, Turkey's most famous tourist attraction, I came across a degree of poverty I have seen in the outskirts of St. Petersburg, but not in Prague or Budapest, two of the EU's newest capitals, and certainly not in Western Europe. There is no question that poverty exists throughout Europe, but I was struck by how easy it is to find in a quick exploration of downtown Istanbul. After all, Istanbul is by far the wealthiest part of Turkey, and even Istanbul feels like it would be one of the poorer large cities in the EU. It is likely that Turkey would prosper from EU membership, as have previous poor entrants like Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece (not to mention most of the ten newest members). The question is whether the wealthiest EU members should be expected to subsidize the considerable progress Turkey needs to make, especially given the unprecedented size of Turkey's population.

None of this should be taken as an insult to Turkey, which for all its faults is still the best model of how a poor and predominantly Muslim country with an authoritarian political tradition can develop into a relatively prosperous liberal democracy. Furthermore, none of this should be taken to imply that Turkey should never be admitted to the EU, especially given that the EU has been holding out the dim and reluctant prospect of membership for more than four decades. But considering the myriad issues facing the EU, and the completely different set of issues facing Turkey, it makes sense for outsiders (particularly Americans) to stop pushing so hard to force this union. There is no reason whatsoever why Turkey and the EU cannot develop and prosper side by side as politically distinct entities, like they have for half a century. There are plenty of other potential mergers between sovereign nations that would make even more economic sense, but there is more to international relations than raw economics. If American commentators and policy makers are so convinced that Turkey is ready to fully merge with the free world, maybe they should consider inviting it to join the United States… right after they finish digesting Mexico, of course.

1 The genocide is also not officially recognized as such by the governments of the U.S., the U.K., and Israel, all of which have close ties to Turkey. Despite Turkish threats of economic retaliation, a growing number of governments do recognize the genocide, including the European Parliament.

2 EU/EEC Membership has expanded as follows: 1952 (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, West Germany), 1973 (Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom), 1981 (Greece), 1986 (Portugal, Spain), 1990 (East Germany, through its reunification with West Germany), 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden), 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia)

David Plotz (CC ‘06) is a culture and politics editor for The Birch, a senior writer for The Blue and White, and a former Spectator columnist. He has also been published in Ad Hoc and the Columbia Political Review. He is majoring in history, with an emphasis on Russia and Eastern Europe.


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