Central Europe on Turkey-EU debate

17-12-2004

The European Union has finally given Turkey a date to start accession talks - providing it takes steps towards recognising Cyprus. The talks are scheduled to begin in October next year and could take at least a decade. Turkey said it was disappointed with the EU's tough conditions but European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was a fair offer. But where does Central Europe lie in the great Turkey debate?

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK In 1683 the armies of the Sultan were driven from the gates of Vienna by a force led by Poland's King Sobieski. Catholic Poles and Austrians stood as brothers in arms, united in the task of defending Christian Europe from Muslim Turkey. Three centuries on, the battle lines are once again being drawn. Except this time, Poles and Austrians are no longer on the same side. This is Poland's President, Aleksander Kwasniewski:

"If you ask Poland about our position, we are very much in favour. We will support this process, and it's very interesting to find at the end of the day good solutions. But that is a real challenge. Because we have, for the first time, a huge Islamic country going to European structures."

Poland - or the Polish government at least - is a strong supporter of Turkey's moves to join the EU. But what of its erstwhile ally in the Battle of Vienna? Unlike Poland, today's Austrian rulers are fighting to keep Turkey out of Europe - as a formal member of the EU at least. Ursula Plassnik is Austria's Foreign Minister.

"Turkey, as regards population numbers as well as many aspects of the country, is a particularly weighty and important partner. And so it's necessary, keeping in mind the ability of the EU to absorb more members, to proceed cautiously and calmly."

Austria was one of those countries lobbying against giving Turkey a date for the start of membership talks. Vienna wants a "special relationship", rather than full membership. But cross the border into Slovenia, and things have changed once again. This is Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel:

"Slovenia supports the inclusion of Turkey into the European Union. That's a very general statement which can be elaborated. We see in the membership of Turkey more advantages than problems."

Speak to governments in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and you'll hear the same differing views over Turkish membership. Central Europe, in short, is divided, reflecting the divisions across the continent as a whole.

Supporters say Turkey's membership would bring huge economic and military advantages and would be a blow to Islamic extremism. Opponents fret over Turkey's human rights record, a potentially huge influx of immigrants, and of course the religious aspect: the EU's proportion of Muslims would rise from 3% to 20% virtually overnight.

The Battle of Vienna was the final turning point in the struggle between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, a struggle which had lasted 250 years. The Battle of Brussels is being fought with national vetoes rather than swords and lances. But it could be an equally important turning point in Europe's relations with Turkey, a turning point which would once and for all erase centuries of conflict.

17-12-2004