The debate over whether to include Turkey in the European Union crystallizes the essence of what it means to be "European." Not surprisingly, the range of answers is broad, often diametrically opposite. Geography, history, religion, economics and even mentality have been cited as reasons why or why not to invite the Muslim country to the world's biggest economic bloc. Simple "expansion-fatigue" within the 25-nation (and soon to be 27-nation) union is another.
One thing you can't take away from Turkey: the country truly longs to be a EU member. Both its political leaders and the public, any the religious and the secular segments of society, want to build their future as part of Europe. They have had this desire for decades now, even throughout the multiple political changes and economic pitfalls the country has undergone.
As a result, on Dec. 17 EU leaders are likely to give the green light to begin accession talks - e.g., to designate Turkey a candidate country for membership - at their summit in Brussels. This will entail 10 - 15 years of accession negotiations before the country is formally granted member status, and there are likely to be a number of stop signs and roadblocks along the way. But even on this score the debate is heated, with pro-Turkey advocates arguing that accession criteria for the 70-million-plus country should be no different than for, say, miniscule Malta.
But they should. The choice of accepting an ant or an elephant into the family has radically different implications for the household, and those who are blind to that are likely to be the first to complain when something goes wrong later.
Regarding Turkish membership, the real issue is not about size. It is about mentality. Specifically, the country has refused to acknowledge the genocide of 1915, when over 1 million Armenians were led to their death in the Syrian deserts or just slaughtered. The incident has been well documented and includes thousands of eyewitness accounts. Yet Turkey continues to deny it, saying a lot of people died at the time, including Turks (an argument Russia employs in regards to WWII, as Balts are well aware). The country has closed its archives and even banned use of the word genocide. Is this the behavior of someone ready for Europe?
Imagine how different Europe would be today if for the past 60 years Germany had denied the Holocaust. Now transfer that image onto the Anatolian peninsula and you will see what is taking place today - Turks, Kurds and Armenians living side by side and in a state of deep animosity and suspicion.
Thankfully, France has taken the lead in putting the genocide issue on the accession table. (France is one of the only countries that has recognized the 1915 Genocide. The United States hasn't.) Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said last week that France wants Turkey to recognize the genocide as part of its membership requirements. "This is an issue that we will raise during the negotiation process. We will have about 10 years to do so, and the Turks will have about 10 years to ponder their answer," he said.
It was the first time someone has tried to link EU membership with the Ottoman atrocities. As expected, the reaction from Ankara was swift and unequivocal, with one official saying that Turkey would never recognize the "so-called genocide."
If that is the case, then the door to the EU should be closed. As a Polish poet once wrote, "How frightening is the past that awaits us." If a country cannot come to terms with its past - as Germany has - then the future will have precious little to offer it. In Europe, truth and reconciliation must come first.