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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Agonising Reappraisals

Talleyrand has returned from a most august gathering where he found himself sitting between two people from countries he shall not name. The subject for discussion was very close to his heart, namely, the ‘future of Europe.’ The European continent, he learned, continues to “expand,” not only eastward but also to the north, although not really to the south.

Let him be more precise: it was predicted that Iceland, and possibly someday Norway, would be most welcome into the European Union, as would the next round of candidates from the former Eastern bloc—the “Western Balkan” states of the former Yugoslavia, minus Slovenia, which is already in. These states are already surrounded by the European Union so it makes little sense to keep them out any longer.

Further to the east the question becomes murkier. Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the states in the Southern Caucasus lie on some distant list in somebody’s drawer in Brussels. Russia most certainly does not. Nor does Israel, which, Talleyrand was surprised to learn, sent at one point a tentative proposal for membership and considered offering Jordan along with itself.

But the most contentious country of all is Turkey. For the past twenty years that proud country has knocked at Europe’s door (preferable, of course, to knocking it down, which it also tried once before). Time after time it has been presented with further conditions, more accession talks. The Turk is patient. For though he may be unsure of his own country’s destiny he surely knows that he will be in a position to make Europe an offer she cannot refuse.

What will it be? The person from country X, on Talleyrand’s left, pointed out that Turkey’s population dwarfs that of any other in Europe; should it ever enter the EU, it would be the largest country by far. The person from country Y, on Talleyrand’s right, added that, even putting aside Turkey’s “vicious” history, it was full of all manner of undersirables and shares borders with Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. No, Turkey is most decidedly not European.

Is Turkey really any less a part of Europe than Spain (how soon we forget that Africa no longer begins at the Pyrenees), Malta or Cyprus? Like so many of these discussions, the main point is lost amid varying efforts to conceal cultural and historical biases and overlook the fact that Europe, or any other continent, for that matter, is first and foremost a geopolitical entity.

In fact, such talk is a luxury that Talleyrand fears will not last much longer. For someday in the not too distant future, the dear Americans who have been subsidising the defense of Europe may tire of the burden. And the Europeans, whoever they may then be, will find the precious Union terribly vulnerable.

At this point the wiser Europeans may very well want a positive association, and maybe an institutional relationship, with the world’s third largest (and probably its toughest) army. Or, for that matter, why not Russia as well, with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal? Or would Europe really prefer to see one or both powers excluded permanently from its noble society?


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