Turkey at the gates of Europe

February 09, 1996|By Jonathan Power

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The petty squabble of Greece and Turkey, lining up warships around a pile of rocks off the Turkish coast, demonstrates that neither deserves membership in the European Union.

Yet one is in and one is out.

One struts and postures over relations with Turkey, Cyprus and Macedonia, but is called European, civilized, Christian and economically mature.

The other is regarded as Asian, Third World, Muslim, politically and economically unstable.

A different view is provided in a study by the World Economic Forum that met in Davos, Switzerland, this week.

Turkey is ahead of not only Greece but Poland and Hungary, two countries favored for European membership, in a wide range of indicators including domestic economic strength, financial prowess, standing in science and technology and governmental leadership.

Careers for women

In four important categories, Turkey is number 2 in the world: private funding of business research and development, equal opportunity regardless of background, equal treatment of foreigners and career opportunities for women. (Oh, to be Islamic!)

If Turkey is good enough for NATO, then surely it is good enough for Europe. So it was thought 15 or so years ago. Now Turkey falls somewhere behind Slovakia and Malta in the waiting line. ''Muslims need not apply'' seems to be the sign on the door. ''We're getting offended that we are no longer mentioned,'' says Rahmi Koc, the Turkish industrialist who heads a family business listed among the Fortune 500 companies.

Ancient Troy was in western Turkey, and many Europeans seem to see Turkey as a Trojan Horse which, once it has been wheeled into the heart of Europe, will disgorge hobgoblins of Islamic fundamentalism, strident nationalism and authoritarian police practices.

Limited generosity

On January 1, Turkey entered the European customs union, which gives it many of the trade benefits enjoyed by EU members. It will receive over $3 billion in EU loans, investment and subsidies. But that appears to be the limit of Europe's generosity.

Yet how much more European could Turkey be? It was the home of Byzantium. After World War I Turkey explicitly turned away from its Muslim heritage when Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate and founded a secular state. The alphabet is Latin, the working week is Christian, the political arrangements are democratic.

Muslim fundamentalists did better than ever before in the recent general election, but they still number only 21 percent of the electorate. At that, they are pretty tame fundamentalists. News stands outside one of Istanbul's main mosques feature Cosmopolitan magazine.

The election produced an impasse, raising the possibility that the pro-Islamic Welfare Party might join a coalition, probably with the conservative Motherland Party. The Islamists served satisfactorily once before as a junior partner in the socialist-led government of Bulent Ecevit. (One wishes, too, it could bring some enlightenment to government policies toward the Kurds; but on that, all the parties seem united in myopic repression.)

The outgoing prime minister, Tansu Ciller, played on fears of an Islamic take-over to frighten the European parliament into approving the recent customs union. But Edie Oymen, a senior journalist at Milliyet, a national daily, is one of many intellectuals who discount the danger.

''Turkey is like a buoy in the Bosporus,'' he says. ''It may seem to be pulled by the Asian currents from time to time, but, in fact, it is firmly anchored on the European sea-bed.''

No ''Christian club''

Turkey offers Europe a chance to prove that it is not a ''Christian club.'' If it is true that Islam is resurgent and ancient cultural rivalries are resurfacing, it is in Europe's self-interest to accept Turkey as a valuable and natural part of Europe.

Offering it Union membership would encourage it to be even more European. Turkey is no more under-developed today than were Spain and Portugal when discussion began on their admittance.

The alternative to a European Turkey is not a fundamentalist, anti-democratic one; Turkey is too much master of its own fate to let that happen. It is not Turkey that one has to worry about, but what lies beyond Turkey -- Iran, Syria, Iraq, the unstable Caucasus. Turkey could be Europe's very useful eastern beacon of democracy and well-being.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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