• 2002-12-12
Not even readers of The Baltic Times are indifferent to the prospects of Turkey acceding to the European Union, perhaps the thorniest issue to confront continental leaders in a generation. In a vitriolic letter to the paper sent via electronic mail, one individual went berserk, claiming Turkish membership in the EU will erode western values and eventually ruin the historic club. Many Europeans would agree.

The dilemma is crucial, since it recalls age-old, fundamental questions about Europe itself. Where are Europe's boundaries? What is the irreplaceable set of Old World values? No less important: Can the EU, created to facilitate economic effectiveness, continue to expand indefinitely?

The debate, of course, is taking place on different levels, and as a general rule the more popular the debate the more vulgar the arguments. ("They can't be allowed in! They're Muslim!") While many crass judgments filter up and affect official discourse on the subject, EU leaders generally discuss the issue with a fair deal of common sense.

Still, it is the popular opinion that counts, since for the EU to work it must have the support of the people. Thus it is imperative that leaders, regardless of what happens at the Copenhagen summit, explain their decision and its perspectives to voters.

Religion, leaders must say, claim never be a criteria for EU membership. To claim otherwise is to ignore the most important of Europe's democratic principals: freedom of consciousness. Skeptics shouldn't forget that Turkey is a member of NATO, and that the Western military alliance didn't undergo a personality change once it accepted a "non-Christian" member.

Debate on any country's accession to the EU should focus on economics and human rights, and here Turkey's track record offers plenty evidence for criticism.

Economy-wise, Turkey is a mess. Last year gross domestic product fell by almost 8 percent. Inflation – a perennial scourge for 66 million Turks – was 70 percent last year, while the budget deficit catapulted to some 16 percent of GDP.

This certainly doesn't sound like a nation prepared to join an economic union that, among other requirements, demands 3-percent budget deficits. There is a perception in Europe that Turkey, knowing that it can always rely on International Monetary Fund bailouts, won't implement the tough reforms. Ankara received $16 billion in credits in February to prevent the economy from completely collapsing, the kind of handout George Bush spoke against during his election campaign. (Apparently the view from the White House is different.)

Perhaps a more important question European leaders should ask concerns the strength of Turkish democracy. After all, how stable is a democracy that is supported by the armed forces? It was only recently that Turkey's generals ousted Islamist political leaders.

All these considerations elicit a healthy dose of doubt about Turkey's readiness for the EU. Still, should the EU go ahead and begin negotiations with Turkey for eventual membership? Definitely. Turks should know that there is a place for them in the union, but that, just as with all current and candidate members, it has to be earned through a great deal of work, much of it painful.

In the end, merit alone should guide EU expansion, not politics or ignorance.