Though continuity with his predecessor has been the norm so far, Pope Benedict XVI has already diverged from several positions held by John Paul II. One concerns the proposed accession of Turkey to the European Union, a question the EU will take up on October 3.

While John Paul II adopted a neutral stance with regard to Turkey’s desire to join the EU, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a much-publicized speech in August 2004, asserted that granting the country membership “would be a mistake.” “Europe is a cultural and not a geographical continent,” he told the French newspaper Le Figaro; “Turkey always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe.” Ratzinger’s advice to Turkey was to seek its future in an association of Muslim nations—a statement in line with others he had made in the past, emphasizing the decisive role of Christianity in shaping the identity of Europe. Not surprisingly, Turkish dailies greeted Ratzinger’s election as pope with dismay.

Although Pope Benedict has subsequently reached out to Muslims, most notably during World Youth Day in Cologne last month, he has not retracted his views about Turkey’s admission to the EU. The Christian cultural-heritage argument against Turkey’s candidacy is ironic, given the region’s importance to the early history of Christianity. St. Paul traveled twice through “Anatolia,” founding several Christian communities along the way, and the letters of John were written there. The ecumenical councils resolving the doctrinal controversies of the early church took place in what is now Turkey. Under the emperor Constantine, Byzantium (later Constantinople) became the new seat of Christian empire. Of course, Constantinople lost its Christian identity when it fell to Muslim conquerors in the fifteenth century, and the country has never looked back. In modern Turkey, founded in 1923 as a secular, democratic country, Islam remains the preferred but not official religion, with Christians struggling to enjoy the religious liberty Muslims enjoy—a concern the Vatican has raised repeatedly.

But religion will not be the deciding factor for the EU on the Turkey question. As former EU President Jacques Delors has noted, Europe is the product of several contributing elements, including democracy, ancient Greek philosophy, the Roman legal system, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Enlightenment, and Islam. The EU leadership that was not interested in mentioning God in its constitution will not have religious belief as a litmus test for EU membership. Europe’s historical association of the “Turk” and Islam with the “Invasive Other”—at its height, the Ottoman Empire extended to the gates of Vienna—might well feed sentiments that could eventually keep Turkey out, but Turkey’s Christian past and Muslim present do not turn up as official concerns in the EU accession documents.

Instead, economic and strategic factors have proved more pertinent to Turkey’s candidacy thus far—a candidacy that faces higher hurdles since the recent terrorist attack in London and rejection of the EU constitution by France and the Netherlands. As ever in politics, the question is whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

Economically and geographically, Turkey is a divided country. West of the Sea of Marmara lie Istanbul and the European continent. Home to 15 million people, greater Istanbul is more cosmopolitan than many of its Western European counterparts. Much of Turkey’s money is made and spent here, with prosperity also found in other select locations including the capital, Ankara, the industrial center of Izmir, and the tourist region around Antalya on the Mediterranean coast. Away from these thriving areas, though, one encounters a vast territory of poor, underdeveloped countryside. Though Turkey has made great economic strides in the past few decades, it still falls far short of EU productivity and living standards, and, if invited to join the Union, it will bring a burdensome poverty with it.

The risk for Europe is that Turkey is not just poor, but big. If admitted today it would be, with 71 million residents, the second most populous country in Europe, and demographic projections show it overtaking Germany by 2020. With the EU already struggling to absorb new member states that take more from the economic pot than they put in, and powerhouse Germany’s productivity still sagging beneath the cost of revitalizing the former East Germany, wary EU members doubt the wisdom of adding a further drain on resources. (To Americans—including the Bush administration—who recommend the country’s admission to the EU, Europeans propose imagining the addition of a Muslim Mexico as the fifty-first American state, with the enormous cultural and economic challenges that would bring.) On the other hand, Turkey would supply a much-needed infusion of youth to a rapidly aging Europe, along with a pronounced work ethic—something I have witnessed firsthand among Turkish immigrants living in Europe, and in Turkey itself. Istanbul is a metropolis jammed with shops open early-to-late, a place where the selling goes on around the clock, with no siesta. You can buy fresh vegetables on the street at 10 p.m. The people seem to be born capitalists.

Strategically, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, occupies a place of convergence not merely between Europe, Russia, Africa, and the Middle East, but between Christian and Muslim lands and the developed North and the developing South also. Sharing borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran, it sets an example of a Muslim country successfully incorporating faith within a secular, democratic model. And Turkey has waged its own longstanding battles against terrorism, countering violent extremist movements ranging from Marxist-Leninist to radical Islamist to Chechen-separatist. Strategic positioning, though, is a two-edged sword. The fact that Turkey borders Middle Eastern hotspots does not necessarily make it more attractive to EU leaders, who are not eager to have the official European perimeter extended to the war front. And a guarantee of mobility for European citizens within Europe’s borders—the freedom to live, work, and travel anywhere on the continent—has become a loaded issue in a time of anxiety about immigration and terrorism. The question is how inclusive and open Europe can afford to be.

Will Turkey be invited to join the EU? Many commentators find admission less likely now that ratification of the EU constitution has stalled. The French and Dutch no votes on the constitution are perceived as reflecting a widely held fear that Europe has lost its way: The Union is too big, the bureaucrats in Brussels are out of touch, and the cherished identity and autonomy of individual member states are threatened by the relentless construction of a European “superstate,” a bloated, twenty-five-member colossus legislating on issues as diverse as freedom, security, justice, jobs, the environment, and globalization.

On the other hand, dialogue with Turkey has been underway since 1963, and no country whose candidacy has been formally considered by the EU has yet been rejected. Those who complain that Turkey’s membership challenges the geographical logic of Europe, since so little of the country lies on the continent, are hard-pressed to differentiate its case for admission from that of Malta, invited to join in 2004. And as for the economic objections, the fact is that new member states have almost always been poorer than current EU states. Once they are in, though, their economic productivity and living standards have risen substantially. Look at Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.

In December 2004, the European Council praised Turkey’s progress in satisfying the political criteria for accession established at the Copenhagen European Council of 1993. Constitutional and legislative reforms that Turkey has undertaken since 2001 include abolition of the death penalty, enactment of a new penal code, and extension of new rights and protections to women and minority groups, including Kurds, Armenians, and Jews. The EU also commended Turkey for its cooperation on the Cyprus question. At the same time, the EU has made clear that it expects further progress in the safeguarding of human rights (including a zero-tolerance policy on torture), supervision of the financial sector, and resolution of the Cyprus problem.

During a recent visit to Turkey, I asked many people, including many young people, how they felt about joining the EU. While almost all welcomed the possibility, some said they felt that the country wasn’t ready yet, that it needed another ten years to get up to European standards. A moot point, perhaps, since a green light from the EU would be just the beginning of a years-long process of entry. What remains clear to anyone who visits the country, though, is a widespread feeling of national pride, and a confidence that Turkey will thrive, with Europe or without it.

Timothy P. Schilling writes from Utrecht, the Netherlands. This reflection opens his memoir, Lonesome Road, which will be published by Wipf and Stock.

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Published in the 2005-09-23 issue: View Contents
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