Adrian Hamilton: Turkey's not the problem, Europe is

In place of expanding horizons, there is a grumpy sense of an engine running out of steam
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The Independent Online

If the Turkish experience is anything to go by, they'll be bad tempered, drawn out and ultimately sour to the taste. Rarely, even in Europe, can a decision have been reached with such ill grace as the Turkish one. Even before the handshakes were over, the participants were sounding warning noises about the troubles just beginning, the Turks were grumbling that it showed that the Europeans didn't really want them, and even the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, declared after the agreement that Turkish accession "was neither guaranteed nor automatic". President Chirac, with all the patronising superiority that only he can manage, judged that Turkey would need "a major cultural revolution" before it could join the presumably more advanced culture of Western Europe, while Tony Blair declared that it would all take a very long time and demand "very big changes".

Compare that to the rhetoric of "historic" moments and continent-shaking change that emblazoned the original decision of the heads of government to pursue a date for negotiations last December, and you get some idea of the change in mood and the rising parochialism of Europe in the last year. In place of the vision of expanding horizons, there is now a grumpy, anxious sense of an engine running out of steam and losing direction.

That is a much bigger problem than the Turkish issue. Although much has been written about it, and rather too much racist assumption allowed to surface, the row over Turkey's accession is a symptom rather than a cause of the European malaise. It's not some great clash of civilisations between Christianity and Islam that worries the voters. It is the hard fear among Union members that existing enlargement, never mind future accessions, has gone wrong - that growth has been sacrificed and jobs undermined by the drive towards a wider Europe.

The hard question is the one that the Austrian Foreign Minister asked in her last ditch attempts to derail the Turkish talks. At a time when everything is going so wrong in Europe, shouldn't we fix that first before proceeding further?

The stock answer to this is that, even if the negotiations are successful and all Europe's demands are met, the Turks won't actually join the European Union for at least a decade and perhaps as much as 15 years. But that is simply to evade the issue, and disguise the fact that you don't want them to join ever.

The more pragmatic, and more radical, answer is to say that the very reasons which cause so many Europeans to fear Turkish entry - the size of the country, its large population and relative backwardness of its economy - will actually bring most benefit to a Western Europe in need of young workers, new markets and sources of growth. The long negotiating lead time in Turkey's case not only gives that country time to adjust but also gives Europe more time to absorb the impact of the last wave of enlargement in Eastern Europe.

The most important reason for embracing Turkey, however, remains the idealistic one. With its entry, Europe has the chance to break out of its narrow confines of an ageing population and backward-looking politics to help change the society of its neighbours, to bring moderate Islam into the wider fold and to gain a partner that brings with it new culture, new ideas and a place at the crossing point of regions.

The European Community was born out of idealism, a desire to reshape history. To turn back now for fear of broad horizons would be a betrayal of the EU's own spirit.

That, of course, does not answer the Austrian Foreign Minister's question. That can only be answered not in the negotiations with Turkey but the more immediate issues in the EU of budget, constitution and economic reform. It's easy to deride these questions, and the painful, parochial, nationalistic manouverings that surround them. But it is only through tackling them that Europe can hope to find some resolution of its problems with its own electorate.

It's probably too late for Britain to act as the catalyst. The Prime Minister has lost interest and his ministers see no point to it. We can do the practical stuff of arranging negotiations, but not provide the leadership to propel the Union forward. You only have to watch the debates in Brighton and Blackpool to see why. There are no votes in Europe at the moment. And in this, Britain is not so very different from France, Germany, Holland and even the new member states of Eastern Europe.

Put it down to economic self-interest if you like. High unemployment and slow growth are bad backgrounds for idealistic leaps into the future. But they are not concerns best met by introversion and a retreat into nationalism. Still less is this true of the bigger worries weighing on the public - global warming, energy shortages, security and trade.

"Turkey," said the Commission President on Tuesday, "must win the hearts and minds of European citizens." No, Mr Barroso, it is the Council and Commission who need to do that first.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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