‘Turkey’s membership would mean a European Union bordering on Iraq and Syria’

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One of the curious things about Byzantium, the Royal Academy exhibition, is that it ends with great abruptness, somewhere around the 15th century, without dwelling on what actually happened to finish off the empire. Perhaps it was thought tactful not to go on about it, but Byzantium fell with the Turks’ capture of Constantinople in 1453. I mention this only because with that victory we get the basis of Turkey’s claim for membership of the European Union, for which Britain is cheerleader-in-chief. Indeed, it was during Britain’s otherwise undistinguished EU presidency that Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary, managed to get its candidacy finally, officially, recognised. Since then, David Miliband, the current Foreign Secretary, has confirmed that “the project of an outward-looking EU needs, as a clear goal, the inclusion of Turkey as a full and equal member”.

What’s not to like? Let me spell it out. Three per cent of Turkey’s territory is actually in Europe, the last little rump of the European territories of the Ottoman Empire. And if three per cent of its territory is European the remaining 97 per cent is – that’s right! – in Asia. What are we doing, then, working to get an overwhelmingly Asian country to join the EU? Granted, there are several institutions with “Euro” in the title that assorted nationalities have joined – Israel’s participation in the Eurovision song contest, say. Then there’s Turkey’s own membership of the Council of Europe. But they don’t give every citizen of the country in question the right to live and work here. EU membership does. The assumption that Turkey’s application for EU membership is self-evidently desirable is shared by an extraordinarily wide range of the people and institutions who run Britain. It’s shared by the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Tablet, the Financial Times and the BBC, as well as Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. It’s a scary consensus that can only last so long as it doesn’t actually dawn on the electorate what Turkish membership involves – an EU bordering on Iraq and Syria, and the freedom of more than 71 million people and rising to live and work anywhere in the EU.

Hundreds of thousands could come here. It’s the maddest element of British foreign policy. The reason for it is articulated with painstaking clarity by successive Foreign Secretaries. (We’ll pass over the Eurosceptics who want Turkey in the EU in order to sink the federal project for good.) Turkey is a secular state with an overwhelmingly Muslim population – although the secularism of the state cannot, alas, be taken as read just now. And to have a Muslim state within the EU would send out a hearteningly inclusive message to potential terrorists in the domestic population that we’re well-disposed towards Islam, that it’s possible to be Muslim and democratic, that Europe is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural family in which Turkey can be a kind of role model to other Muslim states which are rather less like us. As Mr Miliband declared, “Turkey gives the lie to the argument that democratic values and a secular democratic state are incompatible with a Muslim majority.”

Mr Straw put it similarly: “One of the most significant threats faced today … comes from the barbarism of international terrorism, from a violent ideology that seeks to drive a wedge between Western and Islamic cultures, and to resurrect a bloody past long since buried. A stable, prosperous Turkey anchored in the EU would be a powerful symbol that the true divide lies not between our cultures but between the majority of civilised people… and the uncivilised few who use terror to destroy the common values which bind the rest of us.” In other words, we might be less likely to be blown up by home-grown Islamic terrorists if we demonstrate a benign approach to Islam by supporting Turkey’s membership. Now I have no objection to a Muslim-majority state in the EU, or indeed to the fact that millions of Muslims are EU citizens. I do have a problem with admitting a state into the EU that is barely European – and a state, moreover, that would be the largest in the Union by the time of admission. Actually, Mr Straw tried heroically to get round that argument by saying he wanted “a Europe of values” rather than mere geography. So, does that mean the EU could take in half the Maghreb? As for the supposed moderation of Islam in Turkey, I’d say that it’s rather up in the air right now, what with the difficulties between the governing Islamic party and the courts about whether the party is, indeed, trying to subvert the secular constitution. That secularist-Islamist struggle – think headscarves – is unresolved.

We don’t need Turkey as a model Muslim state to ward off suicide bombers, thank you. So far as I understand it, a more potent factor for the 7/7 bombers was the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s more, Europe already has states in which the largest group is Muslim – Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. They have problems which make EU membership a rather long shot – but they do have the advantage that they are the kind of Muslims with whom we can do business – secular-minded and pluralistic. They were conquered by the Turks but they’re European. By all means, give Turkey what it already has – a close and favourable trading relationship with Europe. But, for God’s sake, keep it outside the walls.