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Celebration Over, Back to Work for the EU

December 3, 2009

Tuesday, December 1st  marked an important day in the history of the EU. The Lisbon Treaty, the product of a decade long struggle to streamline and further democratize the European Union, finally went into effect. But when MEPs, bureaucrats, and new President Herman van Rompuy woke up Wednesday, one can  imagine the sense of urgency that accompanied not only the beginning of a new day, but of a new EU as well. While the Lisbon Treaty should work out some of the institutional challenges the EU has faced, it is far from a panacea. 

One particular question that remains to be answered is that of Turkey. Although the situation is bit more complicated, two particular points have made its inclusion in the EU a highly debated issue:

First, is the question, “Is Turkey a part of Europe?” Truth be told, the idea of Europe as a continent is a bit of a misnomer. In reality she is merely a peninsula of the greater Eurasian continent. While water bodies to the north, south, and west set Europe apart from other landmasses, to the east there is no clear border. Turkey sits at the confluence of three regions in the east, Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. There is a sort of  three-way tug-of-war that makes Turkey an outsider no matter where it looks.

With that comes the second issue plaguing Turkey’s chances for entrance to the EU. 99.8% of Turkey’s population is Muslim. While secularization is prominent throughout the EU, there is a strong Christian, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, thread woven through society. A sort of test run has taken place as a result of, for instance, post-World War II guest worker programs in Germany and the Netherlands and decolonization in France and the UK. Muslims from Turkey, Pakistan, and North Africa have all become quite commonplace in EU states. Violent actions by Muslim extremists in Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands have gone a long way in painting a picture of Islam that, while perhaps not fully accurate or fair, has left a less than favorable impression on many Europeans. Although the terrorist actions that have taken place throughout Europe in the past decade have not generally been carried out by Turks, their association with Islam is one that is difficult for many to look past.

 It would be highly unlikely that the EU will ever agree to a definite border for Europe-just areas that are more European than others. Europeanization has been a goal of Turkey since the waning years of the Ottoman Party and then especially after its founding under Ataturk. This includes an almost religious devotion to secularizing public life. Even still, secularization in public life has not resulted in secularization of private life.

So what will the EU do? It’s difficult to say. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, voicing the opinions of many Europeans, has made his displeasure with the idea of an EU with Turkey known and the prospect of a visit by the anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders during a fact-finding mission was received coldly by Turkish authorities. The trip was subsequently cancelled.

The reality is the EU is under no obligation to allow Turkey into its exclusive club. By giving a definitive “No,” something it has not yet done, it would send a message that the EU is a body of Christian states and form a more defined sense of what Europe is. Nonetheless, this would create a precedent that might leave countries like Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia on the outside looking in should they seek membership. Saying “Yes” would broaden the definition of Europe and send a message that it is more than just a white, Christian organization, further legitimizing Article 22 of The Charter of Fundamental Rights  which states “The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.” Still, by formally expanding the definition of Europe, the EU would possibly be setting itself up for similar lengthy debates as states from further afield attempt to become members.

The issue of Turkey’s place within or without the EU is difficult and, to say the least, contentious. There is much to be excited about with the accession of the Lisbon Treaty, but important questions like the one examined here still remain. It will be up to Mr. Rompuy and company to take the initiative and have the moxie to answer them.

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