Turkey and democratic majorities

J Clive Matthews
25 September 2007

In his speech to the Labour party conference this afternoon, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband again confirmed Britain's commitment to seeing Turkey join the EU. It's not, however, a very popular opinion in the continent as a whole. France and Germany, in particular, are deeply against the idea - and if France and Germany team up, there's not normally much chance of the other EU member states getting their way.

The potential for Turkish entry allows lazy leader writers yet more excuses to trot out the same old editorials about the potential problems/benefits/dangers of an islamic country joining the EU (hoards of dusky-skinned Mohammedans and the collapse of western European society vs. a long-overdue acknowledgement of the importance of Ottoman, Arabic and wider Islamic cultures on the development of the European identity, take your pick),so I'll try and avoid that.

Instead,consider the question - would Turkey ever gain EU membership if it was put to a vote of the EU's current citizens? For that matter, would the likes of Romania, Hungary and Poland have ever been allowed to join? I somehow doubt it, for a variety of reasons ranging from simple racism to fear of the impact that underperforming economies might have on the union as a whole.

One of my ongoing convictions about the worth of the EU is that its very presence, combined with the vague carrot of potential EU membership, can be a force for good in the lesser-developed states of the European fringe - following the example of the Council of Europe’s guidelines for a decently-run country, but cranking them up a notch.

Of course, it doesn’t always work (cf. the refusal of Belarus to get involved in either the Council of Europe or basic democracy, or the current Polish government’s apparent hatred of women and homosexuals) but, as a general rule, I reckon this EU carrot is one of the most positive contributions the organisation has made to the world - and to Turkey in particular. Without the carrot of potential EU membership, would the recent constitutional crisis have passed so smoothly, or would the ongoing tensions between the religious and secular parts of society have resulted in yet another military coup?

Yet if the people of Europe, rather than their governments, had the final say on Turkish entry, the answer would undoubtedly be no. Though France and Germany don't want Turkish entry, they at least know how to soften the blow. The categorical no vote of a majority of Europeans, however, could prove catestrophic for any hopes for a modern, democratic Turkish state.

Plus, of course, there's the oft-used statistic (the origin of which I'm not too sure) that a majority of people in the UK would vote for the return of the death penalty, given the chance.

So, when is it not appropriate for the people to have a voice? Should democracy always win out, or are some areas best left to the professionals?

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