OPINION

Borderline

West goes East and East goes West and in 2004 they all will meet. That is unless the Irish – who can usually be counted on to be contrarian, and who are at the farthest Western reaches of our world – halt the European Union’s triumphal Eastern march with their referendum next Saturday. In a monumental decision, the European Union on Wednesday opened the door to 10 new countries to join the 15 already in the world’s wealthiest and most progressive union of countries. This «milestone on the road toward achieving one of the most difficult projects that the EU has ever undertaken,» as Guenter Verheugen, the commissioner in charge of enlargement, put it, will allow the candidates to conclude talks with the EU in December and join in 2004. Furthermore, the European Commission believes that Romania and Bulgaria can join by 2007. The criteria set by the EU demand that each candidate «be a stable democracy, respecting human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities; have a functioning market economy; (and) adopt the common rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law.» Ten candidates will have met these criteria by December, when the EU’s 15 leaders are to put the final stamp of approval on the entry of another 75 million people into a union now home to 380 million. Among the new members will be Cyprus. Turkey, on the other hand, is most unlikely to get its much-sought date for the start of accession talks with the EU. That means that, despite great leaps forward in Turkey’s legislation, the EU does not believe it is likely to fulfill the necessary criteria in the foreseeable future. The result, in the end, is that although Athens appears to be just one step from meeting its national aim of getting Cyprus into the EU, and as the huge division of Europe caused by World War II and the arrangements that followed draws to a close, Greece itself remains on the border of the world that it inhabits. As always. It is the fate of this nation, like the legendary frontier warrior Digenis Akritas, to stand warily on watchtowers. Perhaps that is why the current Greek government is making such a display of its preference for Turkey to become a member of the European Union, arguing that a Turkey in the EU will be obliged to behave like a European country and, therefore, will no longer be a problem for Greece. This is all well and good, but, wethinks that Athens may protest too much. After all, beyond the certain irony of Greece suddenly being the one country in the EU to be such a champion of Turkey’s European orientation, it also becomes tedious when we consider that all Athens is doing is being the odd man out once again. Its argument that Turkey has to be given a starting date for talks at the Copenhagen summit in December is clearly based on the desire for a quid pro quo that will lead to Turkey’s helping solve the Cyprus problem (a deal that most if not all other EU countries are not keen to hold out), which flies against the interests of the European Union. If the union’s members believe that Turkey is not likely to meet the criteria for membership soon, it is silly for Athens or Washington to play with union membership as a political bargaining chip. Secondly, one might argue that Greek and Turkish membership of NATO has kept the lid on animosities and prevented the two ancestral rivals from going to war during the past few decades, in the way that EU membership would, ostensibly, also dictate the rest of their behavior. This is true, but for all the benefits of NATO membership, this did not prevent the invasion and continued occupation of northern Cyprus nor the host of other issues raised by Ankara. One might then argue that it is one thing to be members of a military alliance that has no brief and no desire to get involved in disputes between members, especially when these concern a third country, whereas EU membership would entail a code of behavior that would apply to the very social fabric within each country – in which case, having the same values, they would, by definition, no longer be riven by the national differences that have led to the Cyprus impasse. One cannot argue with that. If only the Turks agreed. Since the publication of the Commission’s report on Wednesday, however, Ankara has gone out of its way to show that despite that geographical toehold of Eastern Thrace, Turkey remains on the other side of the border of the mind. At the crossroads of its future, with national elections less than a month away, the Turkish government has chosen to stamp its feet in anger and threaten to turn its back on Europe and its code of behavior. There is no denying that Turkey has taken steps to adopt EU laws and practices that one would have considered inconceivable a year or two ago. Not least among these is the great watershed in which the death sentence was abolished and the life of Abdullah Ocalan, Public Enemy Number One, spared. As Verheugen said, Turkey has made greater strides in 18 months than in the last few decades. But, told to keep going, Turkey chose to circle the wagons and wrap itself in the flag. Cyprus provides the perfect opportunity for such displays, as it is the one issue that has cost Turkey so dearly (making it very difficult to back down on) and is, at the same time, the source of great pride as a successful military adventure. Cyprus’s EU membership could provide a wonderful, face-saving opportunity for Turkey to release its grip on Cyprus and say, «Well, we did all we could for the Turkish Cypriots, we kept them safe all these years. Now that the island is joining the EU, a union that we too are very keen to join, we can let them go.» Instead, Ankara has spent the last three days making increasingly ominous threats that Cyprus’s membership of the EU before its division ends will imply the permanent division of the island. For this Turkey blames the EU. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel warned that the EU would make an «historic mistake» in admitting Cyprus and would «upset the balance between Turkey and Greece in the area, make the division of the island permanent and eliminate the possibility of a settlement.» Such talk neutralizes Greece’s efforts to play the mediator between the EU and Turkey – even as Greek officials have been passing on to their Turkish counterparts in the last year the know-how that has made Greece another country since it joined the union in 1981. It also proves to the EU that aside from being a country with the potential and problems provided by a population of 63 million, Turkey really does have a long way to go before it can pull its weight inside the union rather than throw it about outside. Of course, the optimistic reading of the situation would be that Ankara has to find a way to digest the snub from the EU and can do this with the very predictable huffing and puffing on the Cyprus issue while not actually taking any steps that will make the Bosporus unbridgeable. This will be evident by the way in which Ankara (as well as Athens and Nicosia) deals with the package of proposals for a solution on Cyprus that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to present after the Turkish elections next month. There is a slim window of opportunity between November 3 and the Copenhagen summit on December 12-13, where the final decision will be taken on membership of Cyprus and other candidates (as well as on a starting date for talks with Turkey). Perhaps the inevitability of Cyprus’s accession will help sharpen Ankara’s focus on what precisely it is risking with its anger. And perhaps we could all keep in mind that the European Union remains, very much, a work in progress. Even before the decision to take on 10 more countries, nearly doubling its membership, the European Union has appeared to be battling to solve current problems. Even as the European Convention limbers up to present a blueprint for the union’s next 50 years (as Convention President Giscard d’Estaing put it this week) it has huge problems to deal with right away. Economy and finance ministers have been quarreling over whether all countries should be forced to bring their deficits in line by 2004 or 2006 or never; the effort to create a common security and defense policy has stumbled on (as so often) mutual suspicion between Greece and Turkey; the union’s Common Agricultural Policy has to be reworked so that farmers can survive without constituting too great a cost for the rest of society; an immigration policy has to be hammered out so that the EU can gain new workers without being swamped and without destroying the societies on its periphery; the threat of a US-led war on Iraq has made most EU countries roll their eyes in the knowledge that the union will have to go along with the campaign because it just does not have the political or military weight to do otherwise. This is a time when the European Union has to redefine itself and take decisions that will affect the lives of every one of its citizens fundamentally. And that is why it is very difficult for the EU to have to deal with problems such as candidates’ petulance. Here we are on the borderline where the liberal, humanist democracies of Europe stand as a beacon, calling on like-minded nations to join them. On the other hand, Turkey can be justified in the difficulty it has in meeting all of the EU criteria. It has to balance the risk of adopting a code of behavior that will satisfy the EU but may lead to the destruction of the secular, military-influenced system that has worked so well for Turkey in the past century. But can the union bend its rules so far as to accept an inflexible Turkey and still stand for what it stands? There are no easy solutions. Both are in a struggle to survive – and right now they are defined by the border between them. That, too, can be a guiding light.