France Divided on Turkish EU Accession

Last weekend’s regularly-scheduled European Council summit (the half-yearly meeting of European Union heads of government) was dominated by the prospect of Turkey as an EU member-state, and its most news-worthy result was the approval by the assembled leaders of the commencement of negotiations with Turkey to that end beginning in October of next year.

For me, the question of Turkey’s accession to the European Union brings with it two epiphenomena, one minor and one major. There is the way the question has already become entangled in the historic Turkey-Greece enmity, although at second-remove. Relations are now good between Turkey and Greece themselves, so that any veto of Turkish membership by the latter is hard to imagine (at least in the present situation). But there also remains the problem of the divided Turkish-Greek island of Cyprus, which Turkish armed forces invaded in 1974, and which more importantly is also an EU member-state. It seems that a lot of sweat and toil was expended at this just-concluded EU summit to find some compromise between Cypriot (and, actually, also Greek) insistence that Turkey recognize the Greek half of the island, and Turkish reluctance to do so. The compromise was that Turkey would not make such a recognition now, but would certainly do so before those entry negotiations start next October.

But that is the minor epiphenomenon, and so not of much interest to me. (Although it is nonetheless conceivable that future problems along this line could be enough ultimately to torpedo Turkish entry, thus rendering the following “major” epiphenomenon moot.) In my view, that “major” epiphenonemon is the gulf that has opened up between the negative attitudes of EU national electorates (not all of them, to be sure, but quite a number) towards Turkish accession and the continued behavior of their political leaders in keeping that accession process on-track. By the very nature of the way the EU works in important membership questions such as this, that behavior has to be well-nigh unanimous, as serious objections from any member-state can substantially slow down the process or even stop it. (Ultimately, of course, ratification of any Turkish EU-entry will have to be unanimous among all current member-states.) Meanwhile, the level of actual political support for Turkish membership is nowhere near unanimous across the continent. When will one reality catch up with the other? Or is that alleged EU “democratic deficit” for real, even to the extent that the epochal decision of admitting Turkey could be made even in the face of its rejection by the voters who actually make up the EU’s population?

In this light, the French press is the most appropriate prism to use to examine last weekend’s summit – and not only because an eventual referendum to enable French public opinion on the subject to find its political expression has been promised.


For French President Jacques Chirac took care, just before for heading with his entourage to Brussels, last Wednesday night, to go on the television station TF1 to talk up Turkish accession. The isolated political position he thereby put himself in can be summarized by a recent article in Le Monde by Christiane Choubeau: Both Before and After His Televised Intervention, M. Chirac Seems Isolated Within His Own Camp. First of all, the president’s own party, the UMP, voted last May by 71.8% of its membership against Turkish accession. Even Chirac’s own finance minister, Hervé Gaymard, is rather less than enthusiastic: he discusses his “mixed feelings” on the subject in this article.

Rather more important are the views of Gaymard’s predecessor, one Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now head of the UMP and widely seen to be the French Right’s candidate for presidency in 2007. Antoine Guiral in Libération reports on his views on the subject (From Israel, Sarkozy Opposes Chirac). Sarkozy sees no need to attempt to change that stand which the party he now heads took on the record last spring against Turkish accession. Indeed, he argues instead for a “third way” between admitting Turkey as a full member or rejecting it entirely, namely the idea of a “privileged partnership” with Turkey, an arrangement which would retain many of the privileged relations Turkey now enjoys with the EU while denying the country that full membership. (Not surprisingly, at the same time Sarkozy suggested that such a “privileged partnership” would also be appropriate for the land of his hosts, Israel.) “People are confusing two things,” said Sarkozy: “political integration and economic integration,” suggesting that having the latter with Turkey was fine but that the former didn’t need to come into the bargain. And:

Each new enlargement, whether seemingly legitimate or not in view of the history and geography of the new candidates, necessarily lowers the EU’s declared objectives. The more numerous we are [in the EU], the less we will be integrated. The less we are integrated, the more fragile we will be. That’s what I do not want.

But, as Thomas Lebegue points out in another Libération article (The Left Applauds the Elysée Palace [i.e. President Chirac], the Right Snarls), President Chirac has no time for any in-between “privileged partnership” solutions; for him, full Turkish membership is the only solution (or else Turkish rejection, admittedly, if the Turks prove unwilling or unable to meet EU requirements, which among other things include an explicit recognition of Turkish genocide against the Armenians of the early 20th century). What’s more, according to Lebegue neither has Chirac any time for parliamentary debate on the issue. The Fifth Republic’s constitution (which came into being in the early 1960s, modeled around the idea of Charles de Gaulle as President) gives considerable power and discretion to the French president in the conduct of foreign affairs, and it seems Chirac is determined to make full use of this, even to the extent of blocking debate over Turkey in the National Assembly. This has prompted the Liberal-Democrat deputy Alain Madelin even to complain publicly about the French Republic’s “democratic deficit” – never mind that of the EU – saying that he found it “hard to believe that one could engage Europe and the French in this construction acting on one’s own, by promising them [the French] a referendum in fifteen years’ time.”


What do French editorial writers think? By and large, on this subject we are back to that “major epiphenomenon,” writ small: opinion in the major national publications tends to be in favor of Turkish accession. Le Monde disappoints by parotting the Chirac line, as expressed in its editorial’s headline: Turkey, If . . .. First sentence: “Yes, Turkey is indeed a European country.” Now all that remains to be seen is whether the country is “worthy” to enter the EU. And the answer to that will solely be a function of Turkey’s willingness to accede to the EU’s conditions for entry – essentially, adopting in its entirety the body of EU communal law commonly referred to as the acquis communautaire (thirty chapters, 80,000 pages of law, so that’s pretty daunting in itself, although of course each of the ten member-states who joined the EU last May managed it). And yes, Le Monde doesn’t forget to mention Turkish obligations with respect to acknowledging its genocide against the Armenians of almost one hundred years ago.

Much more intelligent and thought-provoking is the contribution in the Nouvel Observateur by that magazine’s editorial director, Laurent Joffrin (Why They Must Be Told Yes). (And gee, I hate to pass along any intelligent argumentation advocating a cause with which I disagree, but this weblog is after all supposed to provide “Commentary on the European non-English-language press.” But readers should take my bias into account.) Of course Turkey does not belong in Europe, Joffrin begins – if, that is, you still hold to a rather outmoded view of what Europe is supposed to be, basically a projection on a continent-wide scale of the traditional national model, with a homogeneous culture, a common religious heritage, fixed frontiers justified in their placement by geography and/or history, and unity of the population generally. Actually, though, that is not what “Europe” is; rather, “Europe is, above all, a political construction.” As he shortly puts it another way: “Nations are not born European. They become it.” And he puts forth the intriguing examples of Spain, Portugal, and Greece: by any measure of history or geography, these have always been European nations, but that did not mean that they were European Economic Community members from that organization’s very beginnings in 1957. No, they all had to wait until the 1980s, because earlier they did not satisfy what are rather more important “European” conditions, namely respect for human rights. It is those sorts of considerations that are decisive, not mere history or geographical placement, and Joffrin alleges that Turkey satisfied them, or at least can be proved to satisfy them during the course of the years-long accession negotiation period. After all, apparently the EU’s “founding fathers” thought this was possible, as they were by-and-large still around back in 1959 when Turkey was first acknowledged as a candidate for EEC membership. Plus, as he also points out, Turkey is presently “more developed than Romania, more lay [i.e. un-influence by religion] than Poland, less Atlanticist than Hungary, and more favorable to the Union than . . . yes, than Great Britain.” (But what does “being less Atlanticist than Hungary” have to do with anything?)

[Brief response: Europe’s geography, but especially its history in which was defined by the spread of Christianity, does define the continent and so should at least delineate those countries which are potential EU member-state candidates from those other countries that simply cannot be EU member-state candidates no matter what values they allege themselves to hold. Thus Spain, for example, was naturally such a candidate, although Spain could still be outside of the EU and could remain so for a long, long time, if Franco had managed to perpetuate his fascist regime after he himself had died. Whereas Turkey is simply not an eligible candidate – geographically, but also culturally and demographically. Admitting what would turn out to be all-of-a-sudden the Union’s most powerful voice within EU councils, due to its sheer numbers of backward agricultural peasants, is simply unacceptable. And, to further my point, the United States is also not an EU member-state, nor is New Zealand, although both these countries are more-or-less identical in the liberal, Judeo-Christian values to which their societies and cultures subscribe.]

Finally, there is the analysis by Marc Semo in Libération, Turkey’s Long European Molting – you know, molting, like when a snake sheds his old skin or a bird old feathers. Semo takes part of the viewpoint advanced by types like President Chirac and Le Monde – namely, Turkish accession negotiations will be tough and demanding – and gives it a novel twist. (To be honest, it’s quite possible that he does this without having explicitly set out to do that beforehand.) That twist is best expressed by a quote in the article from Islamic specialist Olivier Roy: “As the supreme stage of the westernization of Turkey, entry into the EU supposes a renouncing of the model which permitted her to arise, that is, as a kemalist, jacobin, and lay nation-state, discretely authoritarian.” “Kemalist” comes from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “father” of modern Turkey, but essentially means (indeed) a paternalistic, authoritarian nationalism. And jacobin, we see, comes of course from French history and currently means a highly-centralized state, the opposite of “federal,” you could say. But, definitions of these somewhat-difficult terms aside, the point here is that Turkish accession negotiations will indeed be difficult, mainly because making them succeed essentially means forcing Turkey to become something that it is not, and never can become, something alien to that country’s history and national culture.

We’ve already seen one clue that that may be the case – and of course Semo mentions it – in the flap a few months ago caused by the proposal to modify Turkish law to outlaw adultery. Yes, European pressure eventually got that scrapped, but the fact that the controversy could arise at all – at a time when the country’s allegedly number-one policy goal was accession to the European Union – offers an important clue to the country’s true nature and preoccupations. The governing party of prime minister Erdogan is after all an Islamic (i.e. religious) party. And Semo also conveniently mentions Turkey’s chairmanship earlier this year of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international organization of Moslem states. It was in fact under Turkish chairmanship of that group’s summit earlier this year that it passed a resolution condemning interference in national affairs from outside countries in the name of “the universality of the rights of man.”

Still: the Turkish EU accession process is on track, and set to pass another important milestone in the form of the commencement of formal negotiations next October. Articles like that of Marc Semo, though, have to make you wonder whether the whole process is simply heading towards messy self-destruction down the road.

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