Saturday, 25 September 2004

Turkey for Christmas?

During the next six months of the Dutch presidency of the European Union, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is expected to pave the way for a positive decision on Turkey’s candidate-membership of the EU at December’s summit. Unfortunately for him, that same month he also has to persuade Dutch voters to back the newly concluded constitutional treaty in Holland’s first ever referendum. One of the biggest factors determining the outcome of that referendum is likely to be, you guessed it, the possibility of Turkish membership of the EU. Hence Balkenende’s dilemma: succeed in completing the first task and the second task might become mission impossible.

Before he can set out to persuade doubters in other countries of the merits of Turkey’s membership, Balkenende will first have to face the dissenters in his own country. It won’t be an easy task. The Dutch cabinet is deeply divided on the issue. In January of this year, ministers of the free-market liberal VVD declared their intention of voting against Turkish membership. Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm presented calculations showing that Turkey joining the EU would cost The Netherlands up to a billion euros in transfer payments. Health Minister Hans Hoogervorst expressed his fear that Western Europe would be overrun by a “tidal wave of Turkish immigrants.” Even some ministers of Balkenende’s own Christian Democrat party CDA – including the man thought to be the next Dutch European Commissioner, Cees Veerman – spoke against Turkish membership by pointing to obvious differences in religious inheritance and cultural outlook between Christian Europe and Islamic Turkey.

Dutch voters aren’t exactly enthusiastic about Turkish membership either – to put it mildly. Ever since the Pim Fortuyn revolt, the Dutch have been in the grip of an anti-Islamic frenzy that borders on hysteria. When Pim Fortuyn declared just after 9/11 that the West was at war with Islam, 30 percent of the Dutch population agreed with him. Since then, anti-Islamic fervor has only increased. Fortuyn was murdered two years ago by an eco-terrorist, but his spirit still hangs over Dutch society. His place at the helm of the Dutch anti-Islamic movement has been taken by a woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a former Muslim academic turned liberal atheist MP. Together with her fellow MP Geert Wilders, she has been engaged in a “holy war” (Wilders) or “liberal jihad” (Hirsi Ali) against Islamic extremism real and imagined.

Centre-right politicians of all parties are calling for radical measures to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism among Holland’s Muslim immigrant communities: the closure of mosques and Islamic schools, the repatriation of imams and even the closure of Holland’s borders to all immigrants and refugees from Islamic countries. To these liberal jihadis, suggesting that an Islamic country led by a fundamentalist Islamic Prime Minister might be ready to join the EU is like a red rag to a bull.

Unfortunately for Balkenende, he has no choice but to face these dissenters head-on. Ever since the road to formal candidate-status was first opened at the Helsinki summit of December 1999, Turkey has been pressing for a final decision on its candidacy. It has received the strong support of the United States, Germany and – more recently – Poland. The date for a decision was set for the December summit of the Dutch presidency. Assuming Balkenende won’t try a last, desperate attempt at kicking the issue into the long grass (which is unlikely to succeed anyway), his options are limited to just a single outcome: Turkey will be given a date for the start of negotiations.

Nobody in Brussels really believes a No to Turkish membership is still a possibility, even though a free vote in the Council would probably show an overwhelming majority against (after the Helsinki summit, one participant observed that 13 out of 15 member states present were opposed to Turkish membership but that combined German and American pressure was enough to override their objections).

Negotiations between now and December are therefore likely to focus not on the decision itself (it has effectively been taken already) but on the eventual date of entry. The Turks want a quick conclusion of negotiations in time for entry in 2009, but they are unlikely to get that. The betting is on 2014, probably with several review moments in the negotiations, allowing for further postponement, possibly even to 2019. It may take a few Christmases, but eventually Turkey will become a member for life.

The Dutch prime minister will then face the hard task of selling this compromise to his cabinet, his party and his country. Turkish membership is bound to play an important role in persuading swing voters to back the No campaign. In a referendum that already looks too close to call, it may just prove to be the deciding factor. If Balkenende can’t persuade people of the merits of EU membership for Turkey, his goose may well be cooked.

By Joshua Livestro

This article first appeared on http://www.TechCentralStati…