Radical energy needed to drive unwieldy EU

Mon, Jul 6, 2009, 01:00

THE EUROPEAN Union lends itself to confusion. The EU is, and is likely to remain permanently, a work in progress. The relations between the partners have grown in complexity from the original six member states in 1957 to today’s 27 – with Croatia, and now Iceland, installed in the waiting room.

The EU is a major building site with all the inevitable mess that entails. The older parts are finished, furnished and decorated, while just down the hall lie bare rooms, and around the corner concrete is still being poured. Some of the original decor is beginning to look a little worn and the tastes of the partners who originally agreed on it have evolved over the years.

Two EU-related decisions last week underlined this confusing, challenging, yet positive, reality.

Tuesday saw negotiations open in Brussels on the taxation chapter of Turkey’s arthritic membership bid. In Karlsruhe two days later Germany’s constitutional court delivered a long-awaited conditional approval of the Lisbon Treaty.

The taxation chapter is the 11th of the 35 which Turkey and the EU must agree before a decision on Turkish membership can be made. Eight other chapters are frozen, France is blocking another five, and talks on the remaining 11 have yet to begin.

Ankara had hoped that the negotiations would be wrapped up before 2013, but most observers now agree that 2020 is probably on the optimistic side of likely.

An eclectic collection of German parliamentarians had argued that the Lisbon Treaty was incompatible with Germany’s basic law (constitution). In its 147-page judgment the Constitutional Court disagreed, ruling that Germany could ratify the treaty provided its parliamentary procedures for approving future EU developments were enhanced.

The divisions revealed by Turkey’s application raise several profound issues about what the EU should become. The Karlsruhe decision spelled out what the EU is, while underlining the new reality that Germany has become just another member state.

Turkey is seen as a founder member of the Council of Europe (1949) and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1952. In response to Ankara’s 1959 application for associate membership of the EEC, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle both talked of Turkey’s “European vocation”. Turkey became an associate member of the EEC in 1963, and was unanimously awarded candidate status in 1999.

European political polarity on Turkey has reversed itself since the Cold War. Until 1989 those on the left and centre-left tended to be critical of Turkey’s decidedly patchy record on human rights and its particular approach to democracy.

Representatives of the right and centre-right either rubbished such criticisms or countered them with realpolitik arguments about Turkey’s vital European role.

A steady barrage of hostility to Turkish EU membership now flows from right-wing leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, while those on the left argue that the membership negotiations should run their course with a final decision being taken on the basis of the agreements achieved.

The hostile arguments run from the bizarre – former European commissioner Frits Bolkestein warning that Turkish membership would be an insult to the liberators “of Vienna in 1683” – through specious geographical ones that Turkey is not a European state, to genuinely frightening ones that the EU has such an exclusive Judaeo-Christian heritage that a country whose citizens are predominantly Muslim cannot become a member.

As the EU includes territories in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Indian and Pacific Oceans through European colonial histories, the argument for excluding Turkey on the basis that most of it lies in Asia seems a little spurious.

In a continent where the majority of people are probably quasi-agnostics – open to the idea of a higher being but increasingly dubious about the finer theological differences between organised religions – making religious culture a membership criterion smacks of prejudice.

What defines a tradition? Must a religion be at least 2,000 years old to be acceptable? What then of Europe’s plethora of ancient pantheistic religions? Are Europe’s Muslims somehow less European than their Christian, Jewish, agnostic or atheist neighbours?

Some of the radical energy which led to the creation of the EU flowed from revulsion at just where differentiating between humans on the basis of their race and beliefs had led us. Such considerations have no place in a debate on EU membership. The underlying resistance to Turkey’s eventual membership is about the cost. How would the EU finance regional development and agricultural support for close to 100 million new citizens spread across Turkey from 2025?

The EU budget is financed by all member states on the basis of their economies and the size of their populations, which means that the lion’s share of EU expenditure is financed by German taxpayers.

In addition to this accountancy logic, successive German administrations all operated with a degree of understanding of Germany’s particular responsibility in ensuring the smooth operation of Europe’s post-war institutions.

This often translated into an acceptance by Bonn, and later Berlin, of policies and initiatives in which Germany had no particular interest but for which Germans would foot the bill.

Angela Merkel’s government no longer follows this approach. She is the first German chancellor to be born after the end of the second World War and grew up in the old German Democratic Republic.

Under her leadership, Germany has begun to act more and more like just any other EU member state in defending its interests. Among Berlin’s key interests is the need to freeze, or ideally reduce, its contribution to the EU budget.

Europe has a key interest in welcoming a Turkey that meets it membership requirements. It also has a vital interest in continuously developing and reforming its policies and budgets.

These two debates should not be confused.