Cold Turkey for Christmas

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Dec 18 2004, 05:30am hrs
The expansion of the European Union by 10 new members this past summer made it the worlds richest internal market and the third largest population bloc, a formidable combine of men and material. This was only perfunctorily noticed in India, even though in global circles it was viewed as a defining moment. The Christian Science Monitor even called it Europes Jeffersonian Moment, referring to political moderation, democracy and social stability that are entrenched in European integration.

The EU experiment has clearly worked on many fronts, but underneath its self-celebratory language and eagerness to leverage this strength, the EU faces two major challenges. First, it is struggling to set up its own military capability and common foreign policy, an issue that will probably get worse. EU nations may have common commercial interests and even common values, but they hardly have a common vision of the world.

Of the three major powers, Germany lacks a clear geopolitical objective, while France and Britain have mutually conflicting global ambitions. Underneath all that genuine harmony on economic, trade and social issues, the basic pattern of European politics is still rivalry and mistrust, making it risky for any nation to allow any other to gain greater influence. This was pointedly reflected by new Europe declaring solidarity with the US over Iraq, and the resulting trans-Atlantic schism which continues to fester. Also, 25 is a daunting and unwieldy number for any kind of consensus, particularly so when the newer EU members are coming into their own for the first time.

The democratic spirit in central and eastern Europe may be weak, but their sovereignty has been preciously earned. They are not about to allow Brussels to take over from Moscow as their new master. Thus, even as EU continues to develop basic capabilities to deal with small conflicts or assume common positions on soft power issues like human rights and environment, a deeper consensus on foreign policy will be beyond reach for some time. It will take a lot, if it ever happens, to dull the national reflexes of its member- states by a fuzzy federalist model.

The second challenge is EU membership of Turkey, a far more fundamental problem, and of more interest to India. As of this writing, the EU-Turkey summit is underway to finalise a date for membership negotiations which, in officalspeak, is both a starting point and sign of eventual acceptance. But unlike other applications, the decision to admit Turkey with its huge Muslim population of 70 million and 90% landmass lying outside Europe is deeply controversial. All signals point to an ambiguous agreement that will keep the process open without promising anything specific to Turkey, a way to chart out some sort of privileged partnership that will somehow keep Turkey anchored to western values without strictly letting it in.

More than Iraq, this issue promises to tear apart the carefully constructed liberal and internationalist self-image of Europe. It is not just prominent rightists like Valery Giscard dEstaing, the former French president and architect of a new EU constitution, who are opposed to Turkey, but also moderate politicians in Europe, and this is unmistakable in private conversations and media commentary.

Why is Turkish membership so painful Many rationales have been offered. Economically, it would create 70 million new EU citizens, with income one-third of the EU average, requiring huge subsidies and raising the fearful prospect of Turkish workers flocking to Europe for work. Politically, Turkey has not sufficiently progressed on minority rights and other political reforms, while in foreign policy it has not yet recognised the Greek half of Cyprus, now an EU member-state. And administratively, it makes no sense to stretch EU borders so far.

Many of these are inadequate reasons. Turkey has achieved remarkable progress on political reforms, its secular institutions have only been strengthened under an ostensibly pro-Islamic party. Low Turkish wages help EU companies to pare costs by obviating investment in Asia. And it was the Greek side of Cyprus which rejected an UN-sponsored plan for peace of the divided island.

The true reasons are cultural, but nobody will admit it. As in the US, liberalism in Europe has been rocked by fears of Islamic fundamentalism. There is increasing passion and fear about core European values, reflecting a fundamental shift in empathy and guilt in post-war Europe. Meanwhile, this issue is being used as a geopolitical chip in the ongoing battle of influence between the US and Europe. The US actively supports Turkish membership because it helps win it an Islamic card in West Asia, and because it keeps the EU distracted.

The nature and direction of this debate is important for India, partly because of geopolitical implications, partly because of the impact of the Cyprus dispute on Kashmir, but mainly because we are witnessing a beginning of the first honest debate in Europe about the nature and extent of multiculturalism.

The writer is editor, India Focus