ANKARA (Times Online)–Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told European Union leaders that they will pay a heavy price in continued and escalating violence from Islamic extremists if the EU rejects Turkey as a member and confirms itself as a Christian club.
"Accepting a country that has brought together Islam and democracy will bring about harmony between civilizations. If–on the other hand–it is not welcomed–the world will have to put up with the present situation," he said–referring to terrorism by such groups as al-Qaeda–whose local affiliates hit Turkey last year–bombing the British consulate and three other targets in Istanbul.
"That is the very clear and present danger and it is all around us today. There is nothing we can do if the EU feels that it can live with being simply a Christian club…but if these countries burn their bridges with the rest of the world–history will not forgive them."
Erdogan’s powerful warning came just days before the EU summit that will decide whether to start formal accession talks with Turkey and against a furious European debate about the effects of incorporating Turkey’s 70 million–mainly Muslim–population into the Union.
He was speaking before opening Istanbul’s first modern art museum–an event he had ordered to be brought forward from early next year to help to project a modern image of his country ahead of the summit. After knocking on the EU’s doors for four decades–Turkey is painfully aware that it is viewed abroad as a poor and backward country and that–despite its secular constitution–much of the West is currently afraid of its Muslim tradition.
Erdogan is a declared "conservative democrat," but his background as an Islamic firebrand has led to so many questions that his face broke into a "not again" smile at the mere mention of the problem.
"We are Muslim–we are Turkish–we are democratic–and our country is secular," he said–emphasizing every phrase. "Nothing else need be said." Nevertheless–he believed that the EU–in trying to add safeguards and get-out clauses in the draft for the talks–was discriminating against Ankara.
"I am of the opinion that Turkey is being faced with tougher criteria compared to other candidate countries," he said. "No other country had to wait for 41 years at Europe’s door. We have fulfilled all the criteria–but despite this–Europeans are hesitating."
Although loath to say so–he feels upset–maybe even betrayed–by suggestions from some–including France–that Turkey might be offered an alternative form of association with the EU if talks fail.
"There are 400,000 Turks already living in France…what have we done to make them so afraid? We find it hard to understand what it is the French do not understand about us that makes them so wary. There is no such thing in the EU as privileged partnership. No other country has been offered this and there is no way that we will accept such an option for Turkey," he said.
He also rejected suggestions that talks could be open-ended. "At the end of membership negotiations either there is full membership or there is nothing. Full membership is not automatic anyway–it may be that we don’t manage to fulfill our side of the bargain and it all ends in failure. So why hobble the process from the start?" Conditions other than the existing political and economic criteria would be unacceptable–he said–especially any permanent brake on the freedom of movement of Turks–millions of whom were already economic migran’s in Europe.
Turkey’s economy has been transformed after a crisis in 2001–while numerous reforms–including the abolition of the death penalty–have improved the human rights situation and reduced the power of the military–an institution that staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and effectively wrote the present constitution. Erdogan acknowledged that the more difficult phase of implementing all these reforms lay ahead–but he was adamant that Turkey had done enough so far to begin negotiations.
A former semi-professional football player–he resorted to sporting terms to describe the situation: "We are not bringing any conditions to this ourselves. But we are seeing here that new rules are being introduced while the game is being played. As this is unacceptable in a game of football–it is equally wrong in a process like this."
Despite his criticism–he remains optimistic–saying that he expected to be offered a start date within the next year for talks with the goal of full membership. "In the last days of the Ottoman Empire–we were then called the sick man of Europe. Note–of Europe–never the sick man of Asia. You said so yourself," he said.