Ready For Europe, Or No?

If the current crop of new members is causing an identity crisis for old Europe, consider this. If Turkey joins the EU, there will be more mosque-going Muslims in Europe than church-attending Protestants. In a decade's time, Turkey's population will have outstripped Germany's. And under a new population-based voting system, Turkey would have as many votes as Europe's smallest 18 countries combined in the Council of Ministers, the EU's most powerful institution.

No wonder, then, that increasing numbers of Europeans are uneasy about Turkey's accession--and about the redefining of Europe's cultural and political self-image that it will bring. In early April French President Jacques Chirac's party came out against Turkish membership on the ground that it would "dilute" Europe. And Germany's opposition Christian Democrats propose a "third way" for Turkey in the form of a "special relationship," short of full membership. Meanwhile, the Turks are counting on the EU to give them a start date for negotiations at the Union's annual summit this December. From Ankara's point of view, once talks have started, it's only a matter of time before Turkey fulfills Brussels's economic and political criteria and becomes a full-fledged member of the club.

The reality may not be that straightforward. Religion, for one, could prove a deal breaker. According to Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University, the real debate "in the guts of those making the decision is about culture and religion," not about the public issues of economics and civil liberties. Turkish membership will change forever the idea of Europe as a Christian entity. "The real choice facing us is whether a Muslim country can ever be fully integrated into the West," says one senior EU diplomat in Istanbul.

Another fear is that Turkey will prove too big and too nationalist for Europe to assimilate. That could bring the EU's integrationist, federalist process to a shuddering halt. That Trojan-horse factor particularly worries traditional Europhiles like the French, Belgians and Dutch. It's also a reason why many Euro-skeptics, such as Britain, are in favor of Turkish accession.

Mass economic migration of Turks under EU freedom-of-settlement rules will also transform the demographics of many of Europe's richer counties. That especially scares Germans, who fear a gigantic influx of Turks coming to join the 2.5 million already in Germany. "Turkey is poor, and it's populous," says one German Euro-parliamentarian who opposes Turkish accession. "Europe has only a limited capacity for immigration, and that capacity has been reached."

Though many Europeans fear an influx of cheap labor,that's precisely why the EU needs Turkey as much as Turkey needs Europe. The EU's population is aging and shrinking, while Turkey's 70 million population is young and growing at a staggering 2.3 percent annually. With old Europe in flux and voters increasingly clinging to traditional values, however, it's debatable whether such rational talk of economics and shared democratic values will in the end carry the day. "Turkey is certainly ready for Europe," laments Bagci. "But Europe is not ready for Turkey."