Which Turkey in What Europe?

“A tempest in a teapot” is perhaps the best description of the recent squabbles about opening the European Union’s accession negotiations with Turkey. The election in Germany was in part fought on the issue, as Chancellor Angela Merkel ran on a platform of offering Turkey a “privileged partnership,” rather than full admission. The Austrian government’s posturing – motivated as much by its upcoming elections as genuine foreign policy concerns – seemed to threaten the opening of the accession talks themselves.

But German foreign policy has always been marked by continuity, and the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the chief of staff under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, has repeatedly advocated full membership for Turkey. It is thus unlikely that the Grand Coalition will adopt a different political approach towards Turkey than the previous Red-Green government.

After a bit of drama, Austria also gave up its opposition to the accession talks, in exchange for a promise of admission for Croatia, and the intra-European squabbles have been patched up. So the British, under Tony Blair’s current presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, have gotten their way for now, and the Americans – keen backers of Turkey’s EU aspirations – have once again succeeded in acting as a “European power.” Accession negotiations with Turkey are now a fact.

But much of the debate about Turkey’s possible accession has been focused on the wrong issues: whether Turkey is culturally “in line” with Europe or whether Europe is in some sense “Christian” and could assimilate 100 million Muslims. The real issue – not disputed even by most Turks – is that Turkey is neither economically ready nor, above all, a mature enough democracy for full EU membership.