Europe must clutch the cloak of history

Turkey should be in the European Union precisely because it is a liberal, modernising country of Muslims
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The Independent Online

The vote this week of the European Parliament in favour of starting membership talks with Turkey should presage a decision by the EU leaders today to start the whole process rolling.

The vote this week of the European Parliament in favour of starting membership talks with Turkey should presage a decision by the EU leaders today to start the whole process rolling.

One says "should" partly because one can never be quite certain in Europe that its leaders will do what is required of them - witness the extraordinary about-turns over the European constitution and the rows over keeping to the rules of the stability pact. The major players, including President Chirac, with important caveats, and Chancellor Schröder and Prime Minister Tony Blair, more enthusiastically, have all said that they will give it the green light.

But there's a lot of bad politics about the Turkish application at the moment, especially in Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands where the right-wing anti-immigration parties are rearing their head. Even Chirac has had to promise a referendum to let the French people decide when negotiations finally come to fruition.

Such hesitations are understandable, but miss the urgency and importance of the moment. To say no at this stage, or to fob Turkey off with a "country membership" or something less than full conjunction would be an act of religious prejudice and historic recidivism of the worst and most parochial sort. Europe has an opportunity to reach out to a whole new world of a bigger, wider and more diverse Europe.

All the objections and the last-minute hurdles being put forward against Turkey - the demands that it admit to the Armenian genocide, the imposition of additional rules on labour movement, the proposal for a "privileged partnership" instead of membership - are little more than masks for a much more fundamental fear and dislike, and that is of Turkey as a Muslim state. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, the world's favourite French politician, has made some deeply dispiriting remarks about non-Catholics. If anything, Europe should be wanting Turkey in precisely because it is a liberal, modernising country of Muslims (officially it is still a secular state, although it is now headed by an Islamic party).

In that sense Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minster, is quite right to insist, as he did in The Independent earlier this week, that Turkey will not accept second-best, special requirements, lesser membership or anything other than the straight road to membership that every other country has followed. Anything less would be an insult, not least to all those in Turkey which have pushed, harried and argued for the huge changes that have been needed to get Turkey to this point of even beginning serious negotiations,

Of course Turkey has a long way to go. Anyone who knows Turkey also knows how very far it is from properly integrating its Kurdish minority, accepting even a minimum standard for its workers and instituting the kind of law that would bring it into line with Western Europe. We are not talking here of a neat homogenous country like Sweden, but a largely Islamic nation developed through four centuries of empire and then dramatically wrenched away from imperial habit to modern national state by Ataturk after the First World War.

The benefit of that change is to produce a formally secular state which, at least among the élite, feels its future looking westwards and its place in Europe. The price has been a state that is fiercely nationalistic, with an army at the centre of its constitution and an attitude to its Kurdish minority and to human rights that has more in common with Moscow than Brussels.

Far from that being a bar to full membership, however, it is the very reason we should be insisting on it. Joining Europe brings with it stringent obligations in a whole host of fields, from equal opportunities to civil rights and financial disciplines. Lock Turkey in those negotiations, and keep absolutely firm on their requirements, and you help all those in Turkey wanting modernisation. Accept it as something less than an equal European and you accept it as a basically different country with lesser standards for its own people. Which is why so many Kurds and even Armenians want the negotiations to go ahead.

Voting today for negotiations to start does not mean immediate membership. Talks could last a decade and there is no reason why the EU should compromise its own principles, at it seemed to be doing with Romania, in order to include it. But there is equally no reason to make Turkey a special case in negative terms, forcing on it special obligations which are not true of everyone.

Of course politicians have to take note of their domestic opinion. At a time when a leading Dutch documentary director has been murdered in the Netherlands, 191 have been killed in the Madrid bombing and the police forces of almost every European country are issuing warnings about the dangers of attacks from Islamic extremists, now is not a good time to talk of Turkey's potential contribution to multiculturalism in the Union.

But politics has to be about the promotion of causes in inconvenient times as well as propitious ones. The Muslim aspect to Turkey's membership is important, not only because to turn it down would be to send such hostile messages to Muslims within Europe as well as its neighbours outside. Yet in some ways one can exaggerate this aspect. Turkey has its own history and ethnic background which make it quite separate from the Arabs and Iranians around it, or the Pakistani, North African and Bangladeshi Muslims populations within Europe.

More profoundly, Turkey is important because it represents a whole new leap towards regional integration in Europe. It brings with it not just an Islamic background but a military force in Nato, a reserve of labour and interconnections that spread out to Central Asia and beyond.

This year's enlargement of the Union from 15 to 25 members was meant to be the end of the story for the time being. But everywhere round Europe - in Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey and now Romania - the older order is collapsing and new democratic governments are coming to power who see in the EU both a path to the future and a means of consolidating change. Belarus and even some Arab states around the Mediterranean could well follow in the coming years.

It's a development most European politicians have been slow to grasp and fearful of embracing. The EU was desperately slow to respond to Viktor Yuschenko's call for EU partnership, and to the change in government in Bucharest. Even though they know that existing enlargement has changed forever the tight, inward-looking club of Western Europe, the instinctive response of EU governments is to look inwards and backwards. It won't work. The dam has broken, and leaders have the choice of either embracing this change or turning aside and pretending it isn't happening for fear that they cannot control it.

In the nervy and uncertain days before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, Chancellor Kohl liked to quote Otto Bismark's statement about clutching the cloak of history (God, as he called it) as He swept by. Kohl took the chance, and he was no Bismark. Today's European leaders are arguably even less statesmen than Kohl. But history is passing by, and on Friday, and over the coming months in Central Europe, they have the chance to touch its cloak.