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EU: Stoiber's Remarks On 'Limits' To Europe Touch Sensitive Nerve

Remarks in Germany by conservative candidate for chancellor Edmund Stoiber, warning against what he sees as the excessive enlargement of the European Union, have touched a sensitive nerve. In particular, Stoiber, who is premier of Bavaria, opposes EU membership for Turkey. This has reopened the contentious debate about whether the EU is, in effect, a Christian club.

Prague, 21 May 2002 -- Bavarians are not known for mincing words. Their manner -- among one another, as with strangers -- is direct and often rather gruff. Certainly, Bavaria's state premier, Edmund Stoiber, has kept to this local tradition in remarks he made about the dangers he sees in expanding the European Union too far east.

Stoiber, a conservative candidate for chancellor in upcoming German elections, suggested openly in a speech in London last week that Turkey should not be allowed to become an EU member. Nor, he said, should North African countries. He said there must be a recognition that Europe as an entity has geographic limits. These limits, he said, do not extend to the Turkey-Iraq border.

Stoiber encapsulated in a short speech what few other politicians, concerned about political correctness, are willing to formulate explicitly. As Professor Alexander Smolar, director of the Stefan Batory Foundation, a think tank in Warsaw, puts it, the size of Turkey's economic problems alone mean that it may have been a "big mistake" to have made Turkey a formal candidate for EU membership in 1999. It is impossible to tell how widespread this view is, but Smolar says: "Turkey has always posed a problem for the European Union, on many levels. First of all was in its level of [economic] development and of [Turkey's] not very democratic environment and [the way it] operates its institutions. This is one level of the problem, a very important one -- but probably it's not crucial."

The crucial problem, says Smolar, is the one implied by Stoiber, namely cultural-historical differences. "This is the cultural dimension, whether Europe has now its natural frontiers, which can be identified -- although I imagine [Stoiber] did not mention it -- with the frontiers of Christianity."

European Union leaders and officials have gone to great lengths to dispel the impression that the EU is a "Christian club." When Turkey was made a formal candidate for membership, politicians cited it as proof that the EU is open to free-market democracies, regardless of cultural background. But Stoiber's comments recall an ancient stereotype -- that is, that Christians and Muslims inhabit "different" worlds.

But as Smolar points out, there used to be suspicions even within Christianity. He says some believed only Western-rite Christianity could be identified with European traditions of democracy, liberalism, and the rule of law. This approach would mean that even the Orthodox Christians of Eastern Europe are outside the natural circle of EU membership.

Another senior analyst, Turkish Foreign Policy Institute board member Resat Arim, expresses sadness at Stoiber's remarks. And noting the upcoming elections in Germany, he links the Bavarian's comments to the recent electoral gains of the right or the far right in France and the Netherlands: "This is part of the new wave, the unfortunate new wave in Europe -- the extreme right."

Stoiber, a mainstream conservative, would no doubt strongly resist being lumped with the far right. But most analysts see his remarks as part of the campaign for the September federal elections in Germany. They say he wants to ride the wave of anti-immigration and anti-Islamic feeling that has grown since the 11 September terror attacks on the United States.

In addition, Arim sees the Germans as fearing that Turkey, as an EU member, could make heavier financial demands upon Berlin than at present: "We in Turkey have very close links with Germany, politically and especially economically, in trade and investment, and Germany is satisfied with all these links. They don't want to have any more responsibility financially, because any country which is a member of the European Union which needs financial aid finds that Germany is the main financier."

Arim also sees Stoiber as playing on the fears of the German public that the country will be flooded with Turkish immigrants if Turkey is allowed to join the union. He sees this as being a particularly effective tactic in eastern Germany, the former communist region that is still marked by high unemployment.

However, Arim sees this supposition as false, in that experience has shown that when a new member enters the EU, and as its economic situation starts to improve, its citizens living abroad tend to return home. That happened, for instance, when Spain and Portugal became members in 1986.

In Sofia, Bulgarian analyst Krassen Stanchev points to a contradiction in the economic and political processes at work. Looked at in economic terms, he says, the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people is a benefit: "The real stake, from my point of view, and for the policies of the European Union, is to facilitate capital flows between the union and its peripheries -- whether it is a periphery within the union, like southern Italy or Portugal, or is a periphery outside the union, like Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, or Russia."

However, he says, judged by recent election results, the voting population of the EU perceives these freedoms of movement as a threat, hence the political interest in exploiting these fears. Stanchev sees the system as self-justifying, in that once the politicians take up the theme, their political messages serve to increase the fears among the population.

At the moment, Stoiber's conservative grouping leads the ruling center-left coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in opinion polls for the September elections.