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EU: Giscard's Rejectionist Remarks About Turkey Spark New Debate

Remarks by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing that Turkey does not belong in the European Union have reopened debate on Turkey's long-running bid to join the EU. Turkish officials are offended by Giscard's remarks. Although the sentiment he expressed is not new, he linked it with concern that if Turkey is allowed into the European "club," then it will be impossible to prevent applications from countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Morocco. And that, he says, would dilute the concept of Europe beyond recognition.

Prague, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey has always had one foot in Europe. The tiny fragment of its territory west of the Bosporus, bordering Greece and Bulgaria, is geographically in Europe. However, the country's great landmass, along with the majority of its 70 million people, lies in Asia. To the east, Turkey borders on the Middle Eastern powers Iraq and Syria, among others.

Can Europe reach almost to the gates of Baghdad and Damascus? Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, for one, believes the answer is no.

Giscard, who is currently heading the European Union's Convention on the Future of Europe, has caused a storm with his comments last week that Turkey should not become an EU member. Not one to mince his words, Giscard said Turkish membership would spell the end of the EU. He was referring to the likelihood that if Turkey gained membership, claims by countries like Morocco and other North African and Caucasian states would be impossible to resist, therefore diluting forever the concept of the EU as a united Europe.

But he also emphasized the historic and cultural differences between Muslim Turkey and the Christian West. This is sensitive territory, and not surprisingly, his remarks stirred up strong reactions. Giscard has since been criticized as a "Christian fundamentalist," among other things. The European Commission has distanced itself from his remarks.

His arguments are also dismissed by analyst Faruk Sen, of the Center for Turkish Studies at Essen University in Germany. Sen said he's shocked at the former president's attitude, and he noted the long step-by-step development of relations between Ankara and the union: "Turkey has had an association agreement since 1963 with what was then the European Economic Community. Then, on 14 April 1978, it applied for full membership of the community, and since December 1999 Turkey has had the status of an EU candidate member state, and now on 13 December [this year] it is hoping for an invitation to negotiate on membership."

Sen has little patience with Giscard's concerns over cultural differences. He said the incident shows quite clearly that "in Europe there are still forces that emphasize cultural and religious differences instead of taking the basic values of the European Union as their measure."

And he characterizes as "cheap" counterarguments the assertions that Russia or Morocco will be the next applicant, saying that Morocco has already applied and been rejected. As to worries about the difficulty of fitting the moribund Turkish economy to EU norms, he said: "The Turkish economy is in basically better condition than those of Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. There will not be any great problems [fitting it in to the EU] and as far a social market economy, Turkey has far better experience than the East European candidates."

Another independent analyst, Brussels-based Stefan Maarteel, believes views like that of Giscard are fairly widespread in Europe, in that people living within a Christian tradition are "very cautious" about Islam. And he does see it as legitimate to discuss where the borders of Europe can be drawn. He says that if Turkey is admitted, it will be hard to reject Morocco in 10 years' time.

Nevertheless, he still comes down in favor of Turkey. "Regardless of all the reasons that Turkey could be a danger to Europe, in the long run I still think Turkey belongs to Europe on other grounds -- namely that it has always been a part of European history. And yet another ground is that it is the most secularized Muslim state in the world, and can act as a strong base for the European Union in the Middle East."

And he said the things Turkey can be faulted on relate to its readiness or lack of readiness to meet the EU's "Copenhagen criteria" for membership -- not on whether it is Muslim or not. "You have to consider whether Turkey is a real democracy, and that is a totally different point that does not have to do with Islam. It's to do with human rights, and the big role the army still plays in politics, questions like that."

Another senior analyst, Phillipe Moreau de Farge of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, also addresses the question of where Europe ends. He said that if Turkey becomes a member, the concept of Europe would be profoundly changed: "If Turkey joins the European Union, it means two things. First, the European Union will be no longer a European structure. It will be a Euro-Middle East structure."

He said having Middle Eastern borders would mean a major change in the EU's geopolitical situation. Secondly, he said, taking on a new member's problems, in the case of Turkey, would mean the Kurdish problem would become a European one. And in his view the European Union "is not ready to fulfill that kind of geopolitical obligation."