Ian Garrick Mason


Articles and Essays


Globe and Mail -- December 4, 2004

Will Europe ever stop?

With the impending accession of Romania, Bulgaria, and even Turkey, where will the European Union find its ultimate limits?

by Ian Garrick Mason

"I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member," Groucho Marx once famously telegrammed the Hollywood Friar's Club. The inverse rule is that any club that wants to keep you out must be worth joining. Perhaps this explains Turkey's eagerness to join the European Union.

There has been no shortage of opponents. In 2002, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing declared that admitting Turkey would mean "the end of the European Union," and former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt has argued it would result in "the political union degenerating into nothing more than a free-trade community." Frits Bolkestein, the EU's internal market commissioner, recently predicted "Europe would implode."

Yet on Oct. 6, the European Commission formally recommended that accession negotiations be started, subject to the approval of the European Council when it meets on Dec. 17.

Supporters say Turkey has made great strides toward meeting the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which require a candidate country to be a human-rights-respecting democracy with a functioning market economy and with the ability to adopt the EU's rules and standards (the acquis communautaire).

To critics, that only makes things worse. The existence of neutral criteria that could in theory be met by any country might mean that there are no limits to the Union's growth. As Mr. Giscard d'Estaing put it in 2002, "The day after you open negotiations with Turkey, you would have a Moroccan demand."

With the recent accession of 10 Central European countries, Bulgaria and Romania impending, the advancement of Turkey, and the first murmurings about Ukraine, it is surely an appropriate time to ask: Where will the European Union stop?

Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union restricts candidacy to "any European state," which puts paid to such feverish speculations as the European Union ultimately stretching to the Cape of Good Hope.

Yet the Union has never defined what it means by European. While it certainly doesn't include Morocco (whose application was categorically rejected in 1987), does it include Turkey? Russia? History doesn't provide a cut-and-dried answer.

Anthony Pagden, professor of history and political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, and general editor of The Idea of Europe, says that to the southeast, the traditional frontier has always been the Bosporus. But Europe's eastern border has shifted over time, he says, "from the Don River in the 15th century - few people at the time knew what lay beyond it - to the Volga, and by the 19th century, to the Ural mountains."

For some time after 1945, Europe itself seemed to vanish, replaced by the Cold War concept of East versus West. When Charles de Gaulle called in 1966 for a Europe that stretched "from the Atlantic to the Urals," he was being deliberately provocative. After the Cold War, former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia called for a "return to Europe," as if those countries had been off the continent on a long trip.

If the Bosporus is the southeastern frontier, what about Turkey, whose territory lies on both sides of the strait? Mr. Giscard d'Estaing told Le Monde plainly, "Turkey's capital [Ankara] is not in Europe. Ninety-five per cent of its population lives outside Europe. It is not a European country."

But the recently released Report of the Independent Commission on Turkey, written by a pan-European committee of former luminaries, provides a rather different perspective: "Turkey lies clearly on the dividing line between Europe and Asia, its territory forming part of both continents."

Turkey also has a long history of near-European status. "The Turkish embrace of nationalism was a sort of adaptation of a European model," says Prof. Pagden. "Even the 16th-century sultans saw themselves as very much in a semi-European mode. ..... Mahomet the Conqueror has himself painted by Italian painters. There's a kind of cross-border familiarity you get with people who are in constant conflict with one another."

The Ottoman Empire in 1856 was invited to join the European Concert that would guide the course of the continent after the Crimean War. Turkey's 20th-century path was set by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who abolished the caliphate, discarded Islamic law, and replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet. The country went on to cement its status as part of "the West" during the Cold War with its membership in NATO.

Turkey was admitted to the Council of Europe in 1949, as the Commission notes, and the question of its credentials "was never raised." Since then, Turkey has been admitted to bodies such as the Organization of European Economic Cooperation (later OECD) and several others. "Turkey today is a full member of all major Europe-wide institutions," reads the report, "the European Union being the sole exception."

Since declaring Turkey non-European doesn't seem to be an option, the question will come down to whether Turkey has met, or is likely to meet in future, the Copenhagen criteria. The country recently has made significant changes, including the institution of Kurdish-language education and broadcasting, the abolition of torture and the death penalty, and the elimination of State Security Courts. A dispute erupted in September over Turkey's attempt to criminalize adultery, but once it became clear that the law threatened Turkey's EU application, it was scrapped.

By contrast, Ukraine's European status has never been in question. It lies comfortably west of even the most conservative definition of Europe's eastern limits. But it has lived since independence in a sort of grey zone.

"The Brussels position," says Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform, "has always been, 'Please don't ask us, because we're going to say no,' and that would have been very embarrassing for everybody."

Russia, she says, would be "absolutely livid" at any prospect of Ukraine's accession. "What you do want to avoid is the impression that there is a tug of war between Russia and the European Union over Ukraine."

Since the same issues would doubtless arise over a future Belarus, this helps us to put the last lines on the map. Russia is an overlap case like Turkey: Most of its territory lies east of the Ural mountains, in Asia, but a solid case can be made for Russia's status as a European state.

Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observes that "from Peter the Great until 1917, Russia was perceived totally as a part of Europe. ..... It's really only the line from 1917 that isolated the Soviet Union."

But even though the Soviet Union has now passed into history, Russia is not rushing to "return" to Europe. "Russia very much sees itself as a great power and is fiercely protective of its sovereignty," says Ms. Barysch. "At the moment, they're going in the opposite direction."

It is unlikely that there will ever be an official definition of Europe to lay these questions to rest. "The European Union never clarifies anything," says Mr. Aslund. "The EU is all process, no definitions."

Perhaps the case of Russia provides enough of an answer: Its definition of its sphere of influence will likely determine the Union's stopping point. The ultimate limits of Europe, then, will be defined not by geographers and theorists, but as they always have been - by the power of states and the ambitions of their leaders.


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