Opinion: Rejection of Turkey wouldn't be Europe's finest hour

BOSTON — When the European Union selected Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy to be its first, full time president last week the reaction in many quarters was that “this was not Europe’s finest hour,” as the Financial Times put it. Nothing against van Rompuy, mind you, but after so many “years of tortured labor, the mountain brought forth a mouse.”

Not that the position has much power. The EU’s foreign minister-to-be, Britain’s Catherine  Ashton, will have more, but clearly there is a sense of disappointment among those who would like to see Europe “punch its weight.”

For Turkey, a country that has been standing at Europe’s door hoping to be let in for more than 20 years, there will be a special disappointment.

Five years ago, at a meeting of the Council of Europe, an organization to which Turkey has belonged since 1949, van Rompuy expressed the opinion that, “Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be a part of Europe.” He spoke of Europe’s fundamental Christian values that would be lost if such a large Muslim country were to be admitted. His views are consistent with those of Germany and France, but not Britain, which favors EU membership for Turkey.

Turkey has been a Council of Europe member since 1949, a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a member of NATO since 1952. It applied for formal membership in the European Union in 1987, but formal negotiations for its accession began only in 2005.

At that time I thought Turkey was on a glide path to membership. Europe would not begin formal negotiations if it were not serious, I thought, as Turkey had made change after change in its laws and behavior to accommodate Europe’s standards.

In the years since, I have lost faith that Europe will ever allow Turkey in, no matter how Turkey conforms to European norms. I have watched as Europe, time and time again, raised the bar to membership.

Turkish liberals have maintained that the journey was as important as the destination, and that the desire for membership kept Turkey honest and brought much needed reforms. But Turks now are becoming weary of working so hard to please Europeans, while Europeans, such as van Rompuy, make disparaging and disappointing comments.

Christian churches in Europe are being turned into museums and concert halls as church attendance continues to fall. Yet secular Europeans leap to the defense of Christianity as if the Turks threatened their faith instead of their own lack of religiosity. Indeed, the only faith that is on the rise in Europe is Islam, which is part of secular Europe’s problem with admitting Turkey.

Of course Turkey is mostly Muslim, but secular in its governance ever since Ataturk loosened the hand of Islam on modern Turkey in 1923. Today there is a fierce debate between Kemalists, as the secular adherents of Kemal Ataturk are called, and a rising tide of more religiously inclined Muslims in Turkey.

There are already as many as 16 million to 20 million Muslim immigrants living within the European Union, and the population of Turkey that lies within the continent of Europe, some 10 million, is bigger than 13 of the 27 EU countries. But, still, the ancient fear of being overrun by Turks, whose armies reached the gates of Vienna in the 17th century, remains in the European subconscious. Also, since 9/11, there is the fear of Muslim radicalization.

Turkey, meanwhile, is making a big effort to patch things up with its eastern neighbors. Syrians now can visit Turkey without a visa and vice versa. Relations with Iraq and Iran have improved, and a breakthrough accord with Armenia was achieved despite the shadow of the great killings of Armenians during the First World War, and despite the objections of many in the Armenian diaspora.

This diasopora objection is understandable, given that many Armenians in America and abroad are the descendants of those who escaped the massacres and remember the stories their grandmothers told them. Armenians in Armenia itself were spared because they were under Russian, not Ottoman, control, and their grandmothers have less harrowing tales.

I have described in this space how Turkish-Israeli relations have cooled, which may have an impact on this country if supporters of Israel adjust their pro-Turkish stand accordingly.

But Americans have tended to see Turkey as the great potential bridge between East and West, Islam and Christendom, with a calming influence in what was once its empire in the Middle East, but also in Central Asia, in which Turkic languages extend across Asia deep into China. President Obama, wisely, went out of his way to include Turkey in the list of countries he visited early in his administration.

Europe, having given Turkey what is beginning to look like false hope that it would gain EU membership, is now turning increasingly hostile toward Turkish aspirations and no good will come of that — not for Turkey and not for Europe. An alienated and bitter Turkey, spurned by Europe, is not what I imagined only four years ago. A rejection of Turkey would not be Europe’s finest hour.