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Europe’s line must embrace Turkish sand

Wednesday 24 June 2009, by Tony Barber

The southern French city of Nîmes was the venue last week for a political rally at which Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, set out his vision of the European Union’s future. “Europe must stop diluting itself in a never-ending enlargement. Europe must have frontiers. Europe must have limits,” he said.

Specifically, Turkey, though deserving of a special relationship with the EU, should never become a full member, Mr Sarkozy went on. Instead, he said, the EU should start talks with Turkey on forming “a common economic and security space”, a project in which the EU should include Russia, “which must not be considered an adversary of Europe but a partner”.

Let us leave aside the awkward point that it is less than a year since Russia invaded and dismembered Georgia, an adventure that smacked less of partnership than of a primeval instinct to dominate weaker neighbours. Let us concentrate on Mr Sarkozy’s argument that it is time for the EU to define its borders and tell Turkey, an official candidate for EU membership since 2005, to stay outside.

Turkey’s EU accession would clearly bring profound changes to the bloc, some of which the country’s supporters have not properly thought through. For example, Turkey’s fast-growing population will number more than 100m by 2050, according to the forecasts of the United Nations Population Fund.

By contrast, Germany, at present the most populous EU country with 82.2m, will shrink to 70.8m by 2060, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency. Even the UK, projected to be the most populous member state, will have only 76.7m by 2060, Eurostat predicts.

As a result of these demographic trends, Turkey would acquire ever-increasing influence in the EU’s Council of Ministers, the body in which national governments take decisions using a voting formula based partly on population size. Turkey would also have more seats than any other country in the European parliament, whose approval is already necessary for most EU legislation and whose powers are set to expand under the Lisbon reform treaty.

Moreover, although recent years have seen Turkey outperform the EU in economic growth, its per capita gross domestic product is still only about one-third that of the 27-nation bloc. In the poorest parts of Anatolia, it is barely 10 per cent. The share of agriculture in Turkish employment is falling, but stood at 26 per cent in 2005. If the EU were to keep unchanged its much-criticised (but French-supported) common agricultural policy, as well as its generous regional aid policies, their extension to Turkey would place huge strains on the EU budget.

Such considerations were doubtless in Mr Sarkozy’s mind when he spoke in Nîmes. They also preoccupy Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. She, however, is mindful that the EU’s self-image as a trustworthy guardian of a rules-based international order means that the bloc cannot just wriggle out of its commitment to negotiate membership terms with Turkey in good faith.

The strongest counter-argument to Mr Sarkozy comes from the likes of Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who warns that to define the EU’s borders once and for all would be “destructive and dangerous”. He raises a point too often ignored by opponents of Turkey’s EU entry – namely, that the very act of drawing a line, and leaving a country forever on the wrong side of it, is sure to diminish the EU’s power to encourage benign change in that country.

To some extent, this is already happening in Turkey. Many pro-European reformers in Ankara are no longer confident that the EU intends to keep its word. Politicians and business people are exploiting diplomatic and commercial opportunities elsewhere in Turkey’s neighbourhood, from Iran and the Middle East to Russia and central Asia.

If the EU were to slam the door shut on Turkey, as Mr Sarkozy suggests, the consequences would be more unpredictable and perhaps more dangerous than they are today with the door half open. Turkey is a considerable regional power, in military and economic terms. Thanks to its imperial Ottoman past, Turkic culture and Islamic heritage, it understands its neighbours rather better than the EU does. In short, Turkey has options.

The EU can draw all the lines on maps it wants, but it should remember that Turkey can decide its destiny for itself – possibly, in ways the EU would not like.

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The Financial Times (UK) le 13.05.09

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