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Merkel too weak to derail Turkey’s bid

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The near-tie in the Sept. 18 German poll, in which Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came from 13 percentage points behind conservative challenger Angela Merkel in late August to less than one point behind her by election day, has thrown German politics into turmoil.

One thing is clear: The door through which Turkey hopes to enter the European Union, which Merkel had promised to slam shut, is still open. Entry negotiations begin Oct. 3, and Turkey is still a candidate for full membership.

Merkel launched a high-profile campaign last month to block Turkey’s entry into the European Union, sending letters to EU leaders in other countries asking them to offer Turkey not full membership but only “privileged partnership.”

“We are firmly convinced,” she wrote, “that Turkey’s membership would overtax the EU economically and socially and endanger the process of European integration.”

In other words, Turks are poor (though she did not object to other candidates like Bulgaria and Romania that are not significantly richer), they’re Muslim, and there are far too many of them.

It was a cynical appeal to the anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim prejudices of German voters who are already uncomfortable with the growing diversity of their county (about 3 percent of Germany’s 80 million people are of Turkish origin), and fear a further influx of immigrants if Turkey joins the EU. It was also a bit late in the day to raise such objections, since Turkey has been a recognized candidate for full EU membership for the past six years.

If Merkel had become the leader of a strong majority government in Germany, the biggest country in the EU, the Turks would have been betrayed and rejected once again.

Turkey has tied itself into knots in order to meet the EU’s standards for membership, and that has been a good thing for the Turks, who now live in a far more just, egalitarian and democratic country than they did a decade ago. They do feel that they have kept their side of the bargain, and only six months ago all three of the most powerful EU countries — Germany, France and Britain — firmly backed Turkey’s membership. Then came the French and Dutch votes last May and June that rejected the proposed new EU constitution, and the whole scene turned sour.

France wavered first. New Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pandered to anti-Muslim sentiments in France by sounding very cool about the prospects for Turkish membership. Then Merkel in Germany went further, advocating only “privileged partnership” for Turkey — and though Schroeder still backed Turkey’s membership, her election victory seemed so certain that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul felt compelled to warn that “should (the EU) place anything short of full membership (on the table), or any new conditions, we will walk away. And this time it will be for good.”

Only Britain still backed Turkey unequivocally.

To make matters worse, Turkey announced that while it would sign a customs deal opening up trade with all 25 EU members, it would still not recognize the government of the Republic of Cyprus, one of the 10 countries that joined the EU in May 2004. French President Jacques Chirac promptly tried to turn that declaration into a proof of Turkish bad faith, insisting that it “poses political and legal problems and is not in the spirit expected of a candidate to the Union.”

In fact, it was quite reasonable, since Cyprus has been divided since a Greek-Cypriot coup in 1974, aimed at uniting the island with Greece, triggered a Turkish invasion to protect the Turkish-speaking minority. The government of the “Republic of Cyprus” rules only the Greek-speaking part of the island.

Last year both the Turkish-Cypriots and Turkey itself supported a United Nations plan to reunite Cyprus while the Greek-Cypriots rejected it, so Foreign Minister Gul felt fully justified in refusing to recognize the current government in Nicosia as the sole representative of all Cypriots. Still, he did promise “to establish relations with the new partnership government that will emerge following a comprehensive settlement on Cyprus.”

Even the start of Turkey’s membership talks early next month was looking in doubt. Cheat the Turks on that and they would surely walk away, abandoning the vision of a broader Europe that rises above the old mutual fear and suspicion between Christians and Muslims, and ending all hope that countries east of Turkey like Georgia and Armenia might one day qualify for EU membership. The situation looked pretty grim — and then Merkel stumbled.

She may yet end up as chancellor of Germany at the head of some awkward three-party coalition — the outcome may not be known for a month or more — but it would not be the kind of strong, cohesive government that could impose a de facto German veto on Turkish membership of the EU. And it could even be the Comeback Kid himself, Gerhard Schroeder, a strong supporter of Turkey, who forms the next German government.

As for Cyprus, EU ambassadors agreed in Brussels last Monday that, while Ankara must eventually recognize the government of Cyprus, it can happen at any point in the entry negotiations, which are expected to last up to 10 years. That leaves plenty of time for a settlement that includes Turkish-Cypriots too, so Ankara will go along with it. One more crisis has been surmounted, and the talks will begin Oct. 3 as planned.