Turkey and the EU

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(HOST) Headlines in Europe differ from those in the U.S. in many ways, and commentator Olin Robison finds one difference of particular interest.

(ROBISON) While the news stories in the United States focus on Washington and more recently on New Orleans and Houston, the recurring story in Europe, over and over again, focuses on Turkey.

The issue is whether Turkey, a country of some 70 million, should, in due course, become a member of the European Union. The European Union recently expanded. It is now comprised of some 25 countries. Quite a few others want to join.

The most controversial of these would-be members is Turkey.

Years ago in London an ambassador from a Western European country complained to me that the ambassador from Turkey always turned up at the monthly breakfasts for all the European ambassadors. This chap didn’t like it because he claimed that the Turk wasn’t actually a European. Besides, he said, he knew for certain that the same Turkish ambassador also attended the monthly meeting of ambassadors from Asia.

This ambiguity has been present for a long time. For instance, while Turkey is not a member of the European Union, it has long been a solid and dependable member of NATO – the alliance which for so long protected Europe from the Soviet Union. This leads some Turks to see European waffling on EU membership as more than a little hypocritical.

Let’s go back in time. A hundred years ago right now, Turkey was near the end of its 500 year dominance over what we now think of as North Africa and the Middle East. It was the Ottoman Empire; it was clearly losing its grip on its far-flung holdings. The Sultan in what is today Istanbul was a certain Abd al-Hamin, otherwise known as Abdul-the-damned or Abdul-the-Bloody. His was a profoundly corrupt and grievously oppressive regime, and it was soon to be overthrown by what came to be known as The Young Turks Revolution – a group of young military officers. The Ottoman Empire collapsed and disappeared in the course of World War I and its aftermath. The modern state of Turkey came into being under the leadership of a man who took the name of Ataturk.

The country ever since has struggled toward modernization.
Post World War II it became a solid and dependable member of the western alliance through its membership in NATO. The over- whelming majority of its people are Muslim, a fact that makes a
lot of western Europeans uncomfortable.

Turkey’s candidacy for membership in the European Union provokes spirited discussion all over Europe. Angela Merkel, the new German Chancellor, campaigned for election saying that she was against EU membership for Turkey. The outgoing Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, took the opposite position. Austria recently blocked membership discussions for Turkey going forward for quite a while until it got agreement that Croatia will also be considered. This provoked a harshly critical editorial in the New York Times denouncing Austria’s behavior.

Others are watching closely. They want to be in the club as well. There is Ukraine, Croatia, and several others – even including Morocco.

Now, dear friends, I am keenly aware that these are issues of little concern to most Americans. Even so, these questions will in due course define Europe, and Europe is going to remain critically important to the future of the United States. And by the way, I don’t want to miss a chance to say something good about the current administration: Secretary of State Rice has made it clear in Europe that the United States favors Turkish membership in the EU. Good for her and good for us.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison (RAW-biss-un) is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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