Talking Turkey

Tomorrow in Brussels, the European Union will very likely offer Turkey a date to begin membership negotiations. This is the start of a very long road, and there are many thorny issues ahead that will have to be settled for this merger to have any chance of success.

It's big - Most of Turkey is, geographically speaking, in Asia. Admission to the Union would extend the borders of "Europe" to Syria, Iraq, and Iran (map). The population of Turkey is somewhere around 72 million people. Estimates indicate that by 2020 its population will surpass that of Germany, currently the largest population of any EU member. Europe's social programs could find themselves creaking under the weight of so many new beneficiaries.

It's economy is a mess - In 2001-2002 (the last year for which information is available), Turkey's rate of inflation was a mind-blowing 45% - the fourth-highest in the world. Its foreign debt tops $115 billion dollars (seventh in the world) and the service on that debt consumes 40% of the nation's annual budget. Europe is not afraid to absorb poor nations - Albania and Bosnia are pursuing membership - but it has not yet attempted to assimilate a poor nation the size of Turkey.

It's Muslim - Almost all Turks are Muslims and the country's current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, heads a party with Islamist underpinnings. Erdogan insists that there are no plans to make Turkey an Islamist theocracy, though his recent suggestion that adultery be criminalized brought shouts of protest from EU capitals. European governments' attempts to deal with their rising Muslim populations have been cautious and, in the example of France, just plain inept.

There are other issues, as well. How will European economies handle floods of Turkish immigrants who come looking for better jobs and lives in the wealthier states of the West? The division of Cyprus is bound to cause problems - the Greek half has EU membership and could use that as leverage to gain Turkish recognition of Greek dominion over the entire island.

The EU could slowly phase Turkey in, offering it some benefits now and more later. Turkey has made it clear that it considers it to be an all-or-nothing deal. Whatever the outcome, it could be ten years before the issue is completely put to bed.