PARIS — President Bush’s latest tour of Europe, aimed at fence mending, instead has touched off another round of Franco-American feuding, with Bush and French President Jacques Chirac trading barbs over everything from NATO’s role in Iraq to Yasser Arafat’s role in Ramallah.
For many observers here, however, the most telling exchange was over the admission of Turkey to the European Union. Speaking in Istanbul, Bush said it should be speeded up, prompting Chirac to tell Bush bluntly to mind his own business. The exchange had an element of role reversal, with Bush speaking out for improved ties with a Muslim state while Chirac expressed barely disguised suspicion.
The testy exchange masked the fact that both leaders agree Turkey should become a full E.U. member, even if they disagree on the timing. But for Chirac, as for much of Europe, the Turkey question opens up a larger question of how to cope with the growing presence of Islam on the continent.
As Chirac’s outburst hinted, much of Europe is reluctant to admit a Muslim country to its core at a time when it is struggling to integrate Muslim immigrants, many of whom are marginalized and some of whom are attracted to radical Islam.
France’s population of 60 million is nearly 10% Muslim, and other West European countries are not far behind.
Muslim youths are believed to be behind a spate of antisemitic incidents that have plagued Europe in the past three years. In the last two weeks alone, vandals in London torched two synagogues and a yeshiva student was stabbed and seriously wounded in Antwerp.
“Even though most E.U. countries publicly say they are in favor of Turkey’s admission, there is a clear reluctance in private to integrate a Muslim country that would become the E.U.’s largest member after Germany, at a time when countries are faced with serious integration problems,” a European diplomat said, noting that France was a perfect example of such a dilemma.
Turkey, with 70 million people, would be the second-largest country in the E.U. after Germany.
Within the E.U., Germany is the most vocal supporter of Turkey’s admission. French public opinion is largely opposed, and Chirac’s own conservative party campaigned against Turkish admission in last month’s balloting for the European Parliament. Chirac himself claims, nevertheless, that Ankara’s membership is irreversible, pointedly noting Turkey’s “very ancient European vocation.”
However, he stressed that the negotiations would be long and difficult and that no entry date should be set. That puts him at odds with Bush’s repeated calls for the E.U. to expedite its promise to begin admission talks with Ankara.
The E.U. promised Turkey that it would open talks back in 1963, but they were stalled for decades by criticism of Turkey’s flawed democratic system. More recently, Ankara’s progress toward democracy has forced Europeans to re-examine the justification for delaying negotiations, even though the dispute over Cyprus still is unsolved and may defer talks further.
While some mainstream European politicians openly question whether Turkey would fit in an entity defined by its Judaeo-Christian heritage, most have endorsed Turkey’s candidacy.
For France, however, the Turkey question arises at a time when the government is engaged in a delicate balancing act with its Muslim population of 5 to 6 million. On one hand, the government has shown a marked inclination in the past year to take on radical Islam as it enforces a crackdown on the wave of antisemitic incidents perpetrated mainly by disgruntled Arab youths. As part of this effort, the government has taken some steps that have angered some Muslims, including a law banning from public schools the Muslim headscarf and other religious symbols. On the other hand, the government has sought to establish a dialogue with the Muslim community, by setting up an official representative body for French Muslims two years ago. The government also has invested heavily in programs to improve Muslims’ social and economic integration in French society.
Given the pressures, Bush’s implicit criticism of the E.U.’s reluctance to open itself to the Muslim world through Turkey is seen in Paris as provocative. When Bush invokes Turkey’s E.U. membership as a way to avoid a clash of civilizations, French officials see it as a public relations ploy to improve America’s badly damaged image in the Middle East. Some also call it an attempt to sow divisions within the E.U. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s controversial distinction on the eve of the Iraq war between an “old Europe” and a “new Europe” prompted furious accusations on the continent that Washington was trying to divide Europe in order to weaken it as a competitor on the world stage.
The tensions boiled over last weekend in Istanbul during a NATO summit focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, after Bush made a forceful appeal to the E.U. to start negotiations with Turkey.
“If President Bush really said that in the way that I read, then not only did he go too far, but he went into territory that isn’t his,” Chirac told reporters. “It is not his place and his role to give any advice to the E.U., and in this area it was a bit as if I were to tell Americans how they should handle their relationship with Mexico.”
In an address at Galatasaray University in Istanbul Tuesday, Bush kept up the pressure despite Chirac’s criticism. Turkey is moving to meet the criteria for E.U. membership, he said, and “America believes that as a European power, Turkey belongs in the European Union.”
At a press conference the same day, while noting that Bush had shown much more openness in recent weeks than in the past and that both countries were friends and allies, Chirac added that this did not mean being “servants.”
The spat comes against a backdrop of U.S.-French tensions that have heightened in recent days after months of relative calm. U.S. officials were incensed by France’s refusal to permit a formal NATO military role in Iraq — the alliance agreed to train Iraqi troops, but France blocked a formal presence on Iraqi soil — and by its blocking of a broader NATO role in Afghanistan. Chirac also took an opportunity to challenge U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claiming that the isolation of Arafat was hindering talks.
The next step in the Turkish admission process will be a recommendation in October from the E.U.’s executive arm, the European Commission. The E.U. will decide whether to open negotiations with Ankara at a summit in December.