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Germans Are Talking Turkey

The European Union is in no rush to expand into Anatolia.

12:00 AM, Aug 2, 2006 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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Turkey's sheer demographic size is enough to give pause across the Continent. At 70.4 million, its current population is far larger than prior EU supplicants, and would give the new member inordinate influence over the organization. By 2015, when Turkey is projected to be ready for full membership, its citizenry will have grown by another ten million, matching Germany itself in sheer size.

Similarities end there, however, especially when Europe's ageing population and near-zero birthrate are taken into account. Increasing attention will be paid within EU communities to health care costs and associated concerns, which inevitably will be at odds with the costly aim of upgrading a new member's infrastructure. It is one thing for the EU to numerically reckon with absorbing thirty million Romanians and Bulgarians (Brussels next and probably last candidates for awhile), quite another when the applicant is two and a half times larger and possesses a starkly different cultural background.

There's a growing consensus within Europe to offer Turkey an alternative arrangement--something short of full membership. Chancellor Merkel proposes that Turkey be given an associative or "privileged partnership" focusing on closer commercial and economic ties. ("We can offer a privileged partnership versus an underprivileged membership", stated one German government advisor.) How this differs from the customs union that Turkey and the EU signed a decade ago is unclear. What does seem apparent is Europe's desire to consolidate its cultural identity and geographic borders.

Turkish officials assert that they will accept nothing less than full membership. Turkey also threatens that, if rejected, it will establish closer relations with Iran and Russia. While this appears to reflect little more than frustration, such words should not be taken lightly. American diplomacy needs to change its outlook towards Turkey and Europe, ideally recognizing the concurrent aspirations and limitations. The United States must play the role of an honest broker otherwise the envisioned "bridge" will lead to nowhere but further division and alienation.

Gerald Robbins is an Associate Scholar specializing in Turkish and Caspian Affairs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.