Sultan Mehmet II and the EU

History may divide Turkey from Europe, but we are not entirely prisoners to events hundreds of years ago
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The Independent Online
Europe looks different from the south. Northern Europeans - not just Britons but also Swedes and Danes - repeatedly show up in the surveys as the most sceptical of all forms of closer European integration: the single currency, common foreign policy and so on.

By contrast, the "Club Med" countries of the European Union, in particular Spain and Italy, are enthusiasts. This week, Italy has been accusing other EU countries and in particular Germany of "monetary racism" for its opposition to Italian entry to the single currency. Italy feels particularly sore that its efforts to cut its budget deficit to meet the Maastricht 3 per cent limit are being rejected. Sure, it will miss the target, but its deficit this year of perhaps 3.5 per cent (current estimates are 3.3 per cent) will not be far away from Germany's performance. There is a serious deterioration in the German fiscal position as a result of lower-than- expected tax revenues and higher unemployment payments, further details of which should be disclosed tomorrow.

But nowhere is this southern European feeling of rejection more evident than here in Turkey, which has made a sustained effort over the past 20 years to join the EU, only to be - as it feels - fobbed off. Turkey joined the European Customs Union at the beginning of this year and so has something close to a free trade agreement with the EU: not a complete one in practice because of EU anti-dumping legislation. But actual membership has been resisted by other EU members, so that there is a real prospect that in 10 years countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland will be full members of the EU and Turkey will not.

Of course, by then some members of Her Majesty's Opposition may have got back into office and Britain might like to trade places with Turkey; they could have full integration and we could have a free-trade agreement.

Why is there this resistance to Turkish membership? There are a number of perfectly legitimate concerns which are voiced in public by European politicians. They include worries about the Turkish record in human rights, in particular with regard to the Kurdish minority; worries about the fragility of the democracy here - there were military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980, though another one currently seems most unlikely; and of course there are economic concerns.

The economic arguments are powerful. You are not advised to change your money daily any more, but inflation last year was still 70 per cent. Real interest rates have fallen from 30 per cent in January and are "only" 22 per cent. That makes life difficult for the business community. But no one is suggesting that Turkey should qualify for Maastricht. In any case the real economy (as opposed to the financial one) is doing quite well. Growth has been excellent at 8 per cent last year and probably 5 per cent this. There is a current account deficit, but that is financed by "suitcase trade" (ie unrecorded) exports to former Eastern bloc countries, and capital inflows. Even the budget deficit looks like being only 5 per cent of GDP this year, not that far from other European countries, though it may rise next.

These are all serious difficulties, but they are not unsurmountable ones. So why is there so little enthusiasm within the EU for Turkish entry? There is one obvious barrier, which EU countries will not openly acknowledge, but which many people in Turkey suspect is the real reason: Islam. European nations may be among the most secular in the world, but they do not want a non-Christian nation in their club.

Maybe. But I think there is another reason for the resistance, and a reason to which the European Union politicians would be wise to acknowledge more widely. It is history.

You feel it here in this great European city, looking out across the Bosphorus to Asia, a mile or so away. On another visit last autumn I walked the five-mile length of Constantinople's land walls, built under Theodosius II in 413, and only breached once, more than a thousand years later by the forces of Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. The walls are still intact, and save for a couple of motorways that have recently been punched through them, that gap where the Turkish forces swept though is the only breach.

We live with that breach now. The European Union lives with it. Turkey lives with it. Turkey is a member of Nato; millions of Turks live in Germany, where they and their descendants help to assemble the BMWs and other examples of German engineering excellence we all aspire to buy. So Turkey is intimately bound in to Europe's security and its economy. But there is a difference, deep in history.

There is a great temptation to ignore history: it is frustrating, even irrational to behave as prisoners to events hundreds of years in the past. But of course we are not entirely prisoners, as the EU itself demonstrates. It represents a very successful effort to learn from the dreadful history of Europe in the first half of this century. But the lesson from the EU's attitude to Turkey also needs to be respected, and respected within the EU as well as more widely. Surely that lesson is that Europe will always be a mixture. There will be people in its northern fringes who see themselves as different; there will be Club Med countries angry if they are not fully included in Franco/German plans; and there will be aspirants, like Turkey, whose interests need to be understood. Can we learn to enjoy that diversity?

This is, of course, an argument for a multi-speed Europe. In many ways, since medieval times, Europe has been multi-speed: it has always squabbled. A structure that contains and channels that squabbling is surely better than one which denies that tensions exist.