[VIEWPOINT]A new Roman Empire?When you think about the European Union, you think about 450 million people who are mostly white, Christian and rich. Yet this week, something extraordinary happened. The EU has formally opened the doors to membership talks with Turkey ― a country of 70 million that is dark-skinned, poor and Muslim. If the negotiations succeed, the European Union will eventually extend from Portugal to the borders of Syria, Iraq and Iran, and something that calls itself “European” will have advanced deeply into Asia.
Of course, this will not happen tomorrow. In Brussels, Europe’s capital, they talk about membership negotiations lasting up to 15 years. Let us also not forget that Turkey has been knocking on the door of the European Union for 40 years, applying for formal admission in 1987. Yet Turkey was only granted association, not real membership. And there are strict conditions attached to the offer of negotiations, the most important of which is continued liberal-democratic development. If Turkey backslides, the talks can be stopped immediately.
But what a momentous decision this is! What we see in faint outlines is a new Roman Empire with 25 member states that will soon grow to 30 and stretch from the Atlantic to the Middle East. Yet this “empire” is advancing not by force of arms, but by completely peaceful means.
But it is a long way to full membership for Turkey, and the road is strewn with many stumbling blocks. If you took national referendums in Europe today, there is probably not a single nation that actually would vote for Turkish membership. There is a fear of turning the EU into something profoundly different from what it is now. There is the fear of Islamization and of large-scale immigration from a poor country whose birth rate is way above Western Europe’s.
To counter these fears, the European Union wants to impose strict and permanent limits on immigration. Also, the Turks would not enjoy the generous agricultural subsidies that the EU now hands out to farmers in the traditional member countries. But on balance, the decision to open membership talks with Turkey is a good one.
Above all, it offers a modern, democratic future to an Islamic nation and thus a distinct alternative to the despotism that has gripped the Islamic world from Pakistan and Iran to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey is also of enormous strategic value to the EU because it straddles both Europe and Asia. It can serve as a bulwark of stability between an unsettled Central Asia and conflict-torn Middle East.
These are the reasons why the EU has taken this momentous step. And the hope is that the mere promise of formal membership will keep Turkey on the path of virtue that is democracy, secularization and liberalization.
If and when this process is completed, the world will see a second Roman Empire that might even extend to the eastern Mediterranean and over time to North Africa. If you look at a map of the world of 2000 years ago, that kind of European Union would be identical to the Roman Empire at its peak.
This sounds like utopia, and it will be for a few more decades. But think back to the end of World War II. Who would have thought that France and Germany, enemies for centuries, would ever have joined hands in integration? Or that 50 years later all the countries behind the Iron Curtain, except Russia, would be part of this community, too? What looked like an unbelievable miracle then is a practical reality today. So why not a second Roman Empire, but one that is democratic, liberal and pacific and not ruled by emperors or dictators?
* The writer is the editor of Die Zeit, a German weekly, and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute.
by Josef Joffe