He is, like Tony Blair, one of the most enthusiastic backers of Turkey’s bid for EU membership. But a day before EU leaders are expected to propose the start of formal entry talks with Ankara, Germany’s chancellor Gerhard Schröder is facing growing opposition at home to his support for Turkey’s EU membership.
For a start, there are Germany’s conservative parties. Over the past few weeks Germany’s main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—and its rightwing Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU)—have become increasingly shrill in their criticism of the chancellor’s pro-Ankara position.
Earlier this week the CDU’s leader, Angela Merkel, let it be known that she would “do everything possible” to wreck Turkey’s application for EU membership, if elected. This morning, the CDU’s foreign affairs spokesman, Wolfgang Schäuble, went on the attack again. Writing in Germany’s mass circulation Bild newspaper, Schäuble argued that it was not in Germany’s interests for Turkey to join a “borderless” EU. Turkey “didn’t belong” to Europe. It had also failed to guarantee the religious freedoms of Christians, he said. Instead, the CDU wanted Turkey to have a “privileged partnership” with the European Union—a position supported by Austria, Denmark and—increasingly, it seems—by France’s president, Jacques Chirac.
But scepticism in Germany towards Turkish EU entry is not merely confined to Germany’s opposition. It appears to be shared by most Germans. An opinion poll this morning for Die Welt newspaper shows that the opposition’s “privileged partnership” suggestion enjoys widespread support—even from some leftwing voters. Some 62% of Germans are against Turkish membership, with only 33% in favour. Underlying German hostility to Turkish entry appears to be a fear of mass immigration, fuelled by apocalyptic projections that as many as four million Turks could move to Germany if Ankara’s application for EU membership is eventually successful.
More than 2.5 million Turks or people of Turkish origin already live in Germany—and their alleged failure to “integrate” has been the subject of recent heated public debate, much of it verging on the racist. It is, therefore, not much of a surprise that both Schröder and his key coalition ally Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Green foreign minister, have stressed that negotiations with Turkey will be lengthy, taking between 10 to 15 years.
This morning Fischer describes Turkey’s EU application as the “biggest challenge” facing Europe since the fall of the iron curtain in 1989. If EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday agreed to open negotiations with Turkey, it would mark “a new chapter” in European history, he said, adding: “Turkey’s path to the EU will be long and difficult. But it’s the right path.”
Fischer also pointed out that Friday’s decision is not about entry—merely about whether to start formal negotiations with Ankara—and argued that a modern, moderately Islamic Turkey could serve as an important role model for the rest of the Middle East. “This is especially true after the September 11 attacks,” he added.
Not everyone is convinced, though. In an interview in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s former CDU chancellor, Helmut Kohl—whose daughter-in-law is Turkish—said he too was against Turkey’s EU membership. “I don’t have anything against Turkey. They have always been friends of Germany . . . but I am convinced that Turkey will not fulfil the Copenhagen criteria,” he said. Turkey’s record on human rights and law meant that under the EU’s rules it was simply not eligible to join, he said.
The German debate over Turkey comes at a time when Schröder has seen a remarkable turnaround in his political fortunes, with the opinion poll ratings of his Social Democrat party climbing back up from 24 to 33%. But Germany’s opposition—which is narrowly ahead in the opinion polls—senses that over Turkey it is they and not the chancellor who are in touch with the popular mood. Even after Friday’s Brussels summit, the issue is likely to remain a bitterly divisive one—all the way until Germany’s next election in 2006.