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Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006


Islam issue complicates Turkey's rocky bid to join EU

European public's antipathy growing but common values count the most

Staff writer

T urkey's accession talks with the European Union have drawn worldwide attention as an unprecedented attempt at integrating a predominantly Islamic country into the West. Will the fact that Turkey is a nation of Muslims eventually doom its accession prospect?

News photo
Hitotsubashi University professor Masanori Naito (center) speaks during a symposium at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo on Nov. 1, franked by his co-panelist Michael Reiterer (left) deputy head of the European Commission delegation to Japan, and Yasuhiko Ota, an editorial writer for Nihon Keizai Shimbun. SATAKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

Discussion revolved around this key topic during a symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo on Nov. 1 under the theme, "Future enlargement of the EU and its diversity: Europe and Islam."

A Japanese scholar argued that Turkey's accession talks, which formally began in October 2005, have been affected by what he called a broad-based "Islam-phobia" among the European public, triggered in part by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

A European diplomat disagreed and said Islam should not be construed as an overriding obstacle to EU enlargement, given that there are already 20 million Muslims who call Europe their home. Turkey's population today is 99 percent Islamic.

The talks on giving Turkey entry to the European bloc, which could take at least several years, are at a critical juncture. Early this month, the European Commission threatened to suspend the membership talks unless Ankara did more on domestic reforms and implement a customs pact with EU member Cyprus.

In its progress report on the 1-year-old talks, the commission stopped short of recommending an immediate suspension of the negotiations but urged Turkey to speed up economic and political reforms and open its ports and airports to Cypriot goods before a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Dec. 14-15.

The report also criticized Turkey's records on human rights protection and freedom of expression and pointed to a "slowdown" in the pace of reforms.

Masanori Naito, professor at the Institute for the Study of Global Issues in the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Hitotsubashi University, gave a bleak assessment of the talks, saying that Turkey has become one of the targets of what he described as misguided antipathy toward Islam that is growing among the European public.

Secular foundation

This is ironic, Naito said, because Turkey is a rare country in the Islamic world that has adopted secularism and separated religion and state as early as in the 1920s. Turkey has in fact made it clear for decades that it wants to be part of an integrated Europe, he added.

The problem is not the European Union as an institution, but the countries that comprise the union, whose lawmakers are influenced by populist sentiments at home, the professor said.

Naito, who has authored books on the issue of Europe and Islam, said much of the negative image of Islam commonly held in the Western world is based on misunderstandings -- fueled in part by the link between radical Islamic fundamentalists and terrorist attacks since 9/11.

One example of such misunderstanding, he said, is the moves by some European countries to ban or restrict Muslim women's veils and head scarves at public places.

While the veils are often seen as symbols of Islamic fundamentalism and repression of women's rights, it eludes many in the European public that the Muslim women wear them based on their religious beliefs and that a ban on the veils can be tantamount to an order to partially undress, the professor said.

Naito also said the controversy over the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad carried on European newspapers, which triggered a wave of violent protests by angry Muslims early this year, illustrates how some European people -- in their belief in freedom of expression -- fail to respect others who live by their religious beliefs.

The professor said that he found it irrational that right after the accession talks formally began last year, some people in Europe began to question whether Turkey is part of Europe.

The question, he said, is irrelevant because part of Turkey geographically belongs to Europe and also because the European Union is not supposed to be a geographical concept, but a union of countries with cultural diversity based on a common set of values.

Naito said Turkey's accession would be a significant development for the EU, given that the essence of the decades-long European integration project has been the attempt to stabilize the region by incorporating former adversaries into its ranks.

Admitting Turkey into the EU will contribute to reducing tensions in today's difficult relations between the West and Islam, he added.

What is worrying, Naito said, is that public support in Turkey for joining the EU appears to be rapidly waning as the accession talks fail to make progress. Recent opinion polls show that the number of Turkish people favoring the EU accession had declined to 30-40 percent from roughly 70 percent in 2004.

Michael Reiterer, deputy head of the European Commission's delegation to Japan, said he did not think that it is a majority view in Europe to oppose Turkey's accession because of its Muslim population.

"Islam should not be construed as an overriding obstacle for enlargement. About 20 million Muslims call Europe their home," Reiterer told the symposium.

"Islam is part of today's Europe, just as it has been part of European history, thereby contributing to today's European identity," he said.

Not based on religion

Reiterer emphasized that the European project is "not based on religious beliefs, but on the respect and implementation of rights and duties based on common values."

The sheer fact that formal accession talks with Turkey started means that the EU recognizes it as a democratic country, he said.

Reiterer noted that Turkey's important strategic position is "perhaps overestimated in Turkey and underestimated in Europe. "But it remains a fact that it is a country bordering Iran and Iraq . . . and is the only country in that part of the world which has a foreign policy which is in the interest of the West," he said.

The accession talks with Turkey started amid so-called enlargement fatigue among EU members after it admitted 10 new members in 2004 -- including eight former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

The European Commission recently gave a conditional go-ahead for Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU on Jan. 1, 2007 as planned.

Reiterer said the two countries will continue to be monitored against EU-set benchmarks on reforms. Failure to deliver on the reforms will deprive the countries of some privileges, including EU financial aid, he added.

"This is a new approach to enlargement. This new cooperation and verification mechanism is meant to ensure that implementing measures are taken to fight corruption and organized crime, and efficient structures are set up (by the new members) to control EU financial assistance.

"At the same time, these measures should reassure a skeptical European public and their leaders that the reform process continues and will be continuously checked after formal accession," he told the audience.

Yasuhiko Ota, an editorial writer for the Nihon Keizai Shimbun who served as moderator of the symposium, said the future of EU enlargement -- particularly the accession talks with Turkey -- will provide clues about where European integration is headed, and offer some lessons for East Asian countries including Japan as they start to contemplate some form of regional economic integration.

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