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European prejudice and Islamophobia

Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Photo: EU Council
Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Photo: EU Council

The notion that Turkey's accession to the EU would be rendered impossible by European prejudice against a country of over 70 million Muslims began to gain currency long before the negotiation process formally got under way. On 8 November 2002, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing used an interview with Le Monde to outline his views on Turkey's future in Europe. Admitting it, he argued, "would be the end of the European Union." "Turkey has a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life," he added. "Its capital is not in Europe, 95 percent of its population lives outside Europe. It is not a European country."

Giscard's statement generated a lot of debate at the time: first, because he had recently been appointed President of the Convention on the Future of Europe; and second, because, in the words of a senior EU official quoted by the Washington Post on 11 September 2002, he was "expressing indeed what many of our elite think." European leaders did not heed such warnings, however. At the end of 2004 (and again in 2005) the entire European Commission, two thirds of the European Parliament, and all 25 member states came out in favour of opening talks with Turkey. This was, and remains, proof enough that Ankara has more friends inside the EU than it sometimes admits.

The opening of talks did not end the debate over Turkish accession in important EU member states, however. The French campaign for the 2009 elections to the European Parliament became a showcase for opponents of Turkish accession. President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing UMP made Turkey a theme of its campaign, to the point of asking its leading candidates to issue formal declarations against Turkish accession. On 5 May 2009 Sarkozy once again made clear his own views on the subject when he told an audience in Nimes:

"Europe has to stop diluting itself in an enlargement without end There are countries, like Turkey, which share with Europe a part of their common destiny but which do not have a European vocation."

Days later German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking alongside Sarkozy during a campaign event in Berlin, suggested that the EU should offer Turkey a "privileged partnership" and called full membership "out of question". Such a position went hand in glove with the policy of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), whose manifesto for the 2009 European Parliament elections called for a "phase of consolidation, during which a consolidation of the EU's values and institutions should take priority over further EU enlargement."

Merkel and Sarkozy may have been the most prominent opponents of Turkish accession during the 2009 campaign, but they were not alone. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders, campaigning on an anti-Muslim and anti-Turkey platform, took 17 percent. In Bulgaria, the Ataka party won 12 percent of the vote on the wings of its "No to Turkey in Europe" campaign. And in Austria, the Freedom Party, calling for "the West in the hands of Christians", received 12.8 percent of the vote. (ESI has done a lot of work on Turkey debates in the EU, which is presented here.)

Mehmet Ali Birand.

All of the above – as well as opinion polls that place support for Turkey's EU accession at 19 percent in France, 16 percent in Germany and 31 percent in the EU as a whole – has inevitably fuelled speculation that the EU is prejudiced against Turkey and, as follows, determined to make its path to membership as difficult as possible. Taking stock of publicly articulated arguments against Turkish accession, Mehmet Ali Birand, an influential columnist, also cites the "unspoken" argument: "Turkey is a Muslim country. And Europe is not ready yet to accept a Muslim country in the EU."

Charges of discrimination, double standards and shifting goalposts have been a staple of the Turkish debate on Europe ever since the accession process got under way. As early as December 2004, days before the historical EU summit that was to give the green light to accession talks with Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused European leaders of insincerity. "We are not bringing any conditions to this ourselves. But we are seeing here that new rules are being introduced while the game is being played." Five years later he was to sense "something quite peculiar" about the EU process. "1959 was when we started our discussions with Europe. We are in 2009. Fifty years have passed and there is no other country that has had to wait for that long." In 2010 he told Euronews: "Unfortunately, some of the EU member states are not acting honestly they are trying to corner Turkey with conditions that do not exist in the acquis communautaire."

File:Istanbul gaypride 2008.jpg
Istanbul Gay Pride Parade 2008. Photo: Wikipedia/leandrostr

However, much of what Turkish politicians describe as European prejudices against their country are real problems that have to be tackled. Turkey's human rights record – though vastly improved over the past decade – remains dismal by European standards. Even among the Balkan states, none fares worse than Turkey in terms of the number of cases before the European Court on Human Rights (Turkey was found to have violated the Human Rights Convention in 553 different cases from October 2009 to November 2010, compared to 24 for Croatia), restrictions on free speech, the number of children in prison (2,460 as of July 2010) and the situation of women (Turkey ranked 101st out of 110 countries in the UN's 2009 Gender Empowerment Measure and 126th out of 134 in the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index).

Looking at the actual behaviour of the EU since 1999, one comes to a counterintuitive conclusion: that Turkey has often been given the benefit of the doubt. Rather than discriminated, it has often been favoured and courted. In 1999 it was given candidate status despite failing to meet the EU's human rights criteria. In 2004, despite only "sufficiently" meeting the Copenhagen political criteria, it was allowed to open accession talks – the only candidate country to be allowed such leeway. In Turkey's case, a positive trend, rather than the actual fulfilment of conditions, has seemed to suffice. Even Greece has so far refrained from holding Turkey's EU accession process hostage to the resolution of bilateral disputes (as it has done with regard to its northern neighbour, Macedonia).

Slovenian protest during the Slovenian-Croatian border dispute

Turkey's predicament, and its sense of being treated unfairly, is not unique. As former MEP Joost Lagendijk explained at a conference by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung in Istanbul in October 2010, in previous years, "the Greeks have blocked the Macedonians, the Dutch have blocked the Serbs, and the Slovenians have blocked the Croats." Joining the club has never been easy. Turkey is definitely not the first country to face difficulties in its EU accession process. Spanish and British accession hopes were delayed by France, with the UK's bid for membership vetoed not once, but twice. Austria could not sign even an association agreement for more than a decade in the 1960s, as it was blocked by Italy due to a dispute over South Tyrol. Croatia's ongoing EU bid has also suffered a series of setbacks. Until October 2009 Slovenia blocked more (14) chapters in the negotiations with Zagreb than the EU Council plus France have done in the talks with Turkey.

The Spanish example itself helps dispel the allegation that, as Prime Minister Erdogan recently put it, and as many Turkish politicians like to repeat, "the EU has trifled with Turkey for the past 50 years and continues to do so."

On 9 February 1962, three years after Turkey filed its application for associate membership to the European Economic Community, the Spanish government petitioned Brussels to "open negotiations for an associate agreement with a view to full membership." Spain was governed by a dictatorship under General Franco and its human rights record was dreadful. Understandably, any and all talk of its accession was put on hold for more than a decade. Despite the signing of a preferential trade agreement in 1970, it was not until Franco's death in 1975 – and Spain's subsequent democratisation – that the Community decided to place Spain on the track to membership. And it was not until 1986 that Spain actually joined.

European leaders ignored Spain's bid for accession in the 60s and 70s not out of any bias against the Spaniards but out of a firm conviction that a military dictatorship had no place at the European table. Likewise, they had every reason to put Turkey's membership aspirations (including its 1987 application) in the deep freeze. For years, Turkey was in no shape whatsoever to enter the Community. It took four decades after the 1959 association agreement was signed – decades that brought four military interventions, fits of serious civil unrest, several economic crises and a bloody war in the Southeast – before Turkey and the EU could seriously entertain the possibility of full membership. Just as Spain before it, Turkey had to overcome a legacy of military rule, repression and violence before it could dream of entering the EU family.

Popular claims that Turkey has not received a fair hearing from Europe for fifty years are certainly one reason why most Turks today believe that their country will never enter the EU. Opinion polls suggesting that European public opinion is increasingly opposed to accession are another. However, what the polls show is a lot less obvious than is often supposed. According to the latest (2008) comprehensive Eurobarometer poll, 31 percent of EU citizens declare themselves in favour of Turkey's accession. This reflects neither a major drop nor a major increase in comparison to previous years. Support for Turkish membership has hovered around 30 percent since 2000. (See ESI's 2008 report A Referendum on the Unknown Turk about attitudes in Austria.)

Graph: EU public opinion on EU membership of Turkey

Finally, while public opinion cannot be underestimated or ignored, it is not, and should not be, the most important factor shaping the course of enlargement. As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt put it in an interview with ESI in November 2009,

"The EU project and its important components, ranging from the Euro to enlargement, have been the result of political leadership, not the result of a groundswell of love toward each other among different European nations. In fact, very little would have happened in the last 50 years without political leadership."

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