Outside the tent

October 05, 2005

The Austrians defeated the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683, and, legend has it, they immediately created the croissant in celebration of their victory over the army of the Islamic crescent. On Monday, the Austrians tried to beat back the Turks yet again, by derailing the talks that are designed to lead to Turkey's entry into the European Union, but this time they failed.

Does "Europe" want to admit a Muslim state? People in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria aren't so sure - but there's another, harder question. What happens if Turkey - more democratic, more religious and more prickly than ever - is spurned? A nation of 70 million is already being pulled by powerful currents toward the Middle East, away from Europe and away from secularism. An angry, radicalized Turkey would be a nightmare not just for Europe but for the United States as well.

Germany may be decisive. The large Turkish community there inevitably colors Germans' view of Turkey itself. For three generations, Germans have held Turks at arm's length, while berating them for not being more German. In the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, with 250,000 Turks, unemployment is reported to be 50 percent; the school dropout rate is 30 percent. Germans see an alienated underclass growing, and they know that unskilled workers in Germany will never find jobs - unless the country's carefully constructed social protections are eliminated and employers are allowed to offer wages so low that they cross the line into exploitation. Germans - not all, but many - fear the pressures of globalization from within, and then they lift their eyes and see millions of would-be, low-wage workers in Turkey itself, knocking on the door.

Angela Merkel, leader of Germany's Christian Democrats, opposes Turkey's bid to join the EU, but the inconclusive results of last month's election have kept her from taking office as chancellor; otherwise, the formal talks that opened this week might well have been scuttled permanently. The negotiations pose undeniably difficult questions, for both sides. But Turkey is at the gates again, and if they're slammed shut this time, the consequences won't be as insubstantial as a little piece of perfect pastry.

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