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Integrating Turkey: The Danish Debate

In the five years since Turkey was granted candidate status for European Union membership, a heated debate has raged across Denmark about the implications of this proposed enlargement. Parties traditionally known for policy unity have found themselves internally at odds. Prime Ministers from both sides of the political spectrum have flip-flopped their official stances on the issue. Even public opinion has proven alternately supportive and sceptical. Scattered as it is, this debate has reached a critical period for both Denmark and the rest of Europe, as the EU Commission will decide this December whether or not Turkey is ready to begin accession negotiations. Their decision, to be based on Turkey’s fulfilment of the Copenhagen Criteria—a set of standards regarding democracy promotion, rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities—will have enormous economic, cultural, and political ramifications throughout the EU.

To be sure, the conflicting perspectives in Denmark are largely representative of the pivotal questions that mark the larger debate throughout Europe: Will Turkish immigration put stress on the economies and cultures of current member-states? Will such an expansion constitute a security improvement or liability for the European Union? And perhaps most difficult of all, what is the larger purpose of the EU? In addition to these broader questions, there are a number of issues that have particular resonance in Denmark—the diminished role of a small country resulting from the addition of a large one, the impact of immigration upon the welfare state, and the implications for minority rights on a local scale. As one might expect, a country in which eight parties have representation in parliament has also produced a number of different perspectives on the Turkey issue. These range from stances of complete exclusion to almost immediate inclusion, with many shades of gray in between. 

Economic Impact: Myth or Reality?

Within Danish political circles and public commentary, a central debate regarding Turkey’s EU membership concerns its perceived economic impact. The most common fear is that Turkey’s integration will spur a massive wave of immigration that will cripple the social welfare system and jeopardize Danish jobs. Other detractors have predicted dire consequences for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), arguing that the EU could not absorb Turkey’s massive agricultural production into its subsidy program. Supporters, on the other hand, point to the benefits of an enlarged free trade zone with seventy million additional consumers. Taken as a whole, these perspectives represent a complex combination between myth, conjecture, and experience, and they demand a close examination if they are to provide any useful lessons for the future.

The issue of immigration has served as a central touchstone for many of the right-wing parties who are opposed to Turkey’s membership. As recent ads from the Danish People’s Party have warned, “72 million Turks are ready and poised for free admission to the EU.” The implication, of course, is that they’re also “ready and poised” to undermine the economic foundation of Danish society. These arguments are bolstered by the fact that, if admitted, Turkey would be the poorest state in the EU by a considerable margin. 

Though these warnings sound ominous, past EU enlargements of agrarian and relatively poor countries tell a different story. In the cases of Spain, Portugal, and Greece, immigration was minimal and short-lived, in part due to economic development projects in the new member-states. More recently, many experts warned of a wave of Polish immigration upon integration that never materialized. The explanation for this disparity between expectation and reality is in part common sense: People are simply more comfortable living in their own countries. As Engin Asula from the Turkish Embassy in Denmark explains, “Turkish people simply prefer to be in Turkey.” Yet there is an even more compelling reason why there will not be a massive exodus of Turks to Denmark—it will simply not be permitted. Following the example of the recent enlargement to the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC), Turkey will have various restrictions imposed that will inhibit freedom of movement for at least seven years after they gain membership. In other words, the EU has plenty of power to keep the floodgates from bursting open.

Still, Danes are wary of any added stress to their extensive and expensive welfare state. To some degree, this perspective is justified. The Turkish minority in Denmark has proven a larger burden on the welfare system than ethnic Danes, largely due to higher birth rates and the relative absence of Turkish women in the workforce. For this reason, it makes sense that Danes would be fearful of a rapid increase in Turkish immigration—but the fact that real integration problems exist within Denmark has no bearing on whether or not Turkey’s integration would constitute a significant influx of new migrants. In this way, Danes have allowed their difficulties with one issue to color their views about another. 

Interestingly enough, the rationale that Turkish immigrants would stress the welfare system is directly contradictory to the logic that Turks would threaten Danish jobs. After all, the former assumes that immigrants would be too poor and uneducated to pull their own weight in Danish society, while the latter grants them the financial resources and education to compete for jobs in a high-paying work force. Yet the idea that Danes would lose their jobs to immigrants is flawed for the same reason—Turks will simply not be permitted to immigrate indiscriminately. Still, there might actually be a threat to the Danish work force in a more indirect sense. If the case of the recent enlargement to include the CEEC block is any indicator, Danish industries may move to new member states because of lower wages and production costs in those areas. This should help the Turkish economy considerably and further deter prospective immigrants from moving, but it could diminish job opportunities locally.   

A final economic argument against Turkey’s EU membership warns of the heavy burden it would put on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. At present, the CAP puts limits on EU agricultural outputs, subsidizing farmers so as to guard against overproduction. But critics fear that Turkey, which maintains the largest agricultural workforce in the Europe, would strain the already soaring budget for such subsidies. 

There are a number of reasons why this predicament is unlikely to present a real problem for present member-states, though. For one, the CAP is already under significant pressure to be dismantled. This is mostly because Germany, the main contributor to the EU budget, is reluctant to continue paying for subsidies since it produces efficiently enough to compete on the free market.  (Denmark, incidentally, has a similar situation and could profit from a more liberal trade policy as well.)  Moreover, Turkey will be forced to phase out its agricultural production considerably and transfer much of its labor force to more modern industries. In this sense, it is Turkey and not the rest of continental Europe who will suffer most from the EU’s stringent agricultural policy. As Sadi Tekelioglu, the editor of the Turkish-language Copenhagen weekly Haber recently commented, “The Turks are the real losers here. We will be forced to completely change our economic foundation just because Europeans don’t want us to grow any more fruits or vegetables.” Danes, on the other hand, should benefit tremendously from expanding the EU’s free trade zone to include 70 million more people, especially since the need for modern infrastructure will require resources from outside of Turkey.

A Bridge or Barrier to the Middle East?

What these analyses overlook, however, is that the issue of Turkey’s admission runs much deeper than simple economics. For many Danes, the crux of the matter is not that Turkey’s per capita Gross Domestic Product is only a fraction of Europe’s, but that Turkish culture has proven difficult to integrate with a homogenous and highly secular Denmark. In other words, they’re just different—they practice a different religion, live on different continents, and lead different ways of life. Opponents of this perspective point to Turkey’s many affiliations with westernized nations, specifically its presence in NATO, and its determined efforts to change. “Turkey may not be a mirror image of the West right now,” says Michael Jarlney, a foreign news editor at the Danish daily Politiken, “but once the reforms indicated in the Copenhagen Criteria are implemented, they’ll be much closer.”

Still, few people argue that Turkey will become completely “European” anytime soon. Indeed, both supporters and detractors alike call attention to the fact that Turkey is a cultural and geographical link between Europe and the Muslim world that belongs exclusively to neither grouping. The point of contention arises when determining how Turkey’s hybrid make-up would best serve the EU—as a bridge or barrier to the Middle East.

The ‘barrier argument’ envisions Turkey as an important buffer between the safety of the EU and the socio-political turmoil of the Arab world. By this rationale, to accept Turkey into the EU is to invite in its regional conflicts as well. The current Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmusen, was once among the staunchest defenders of this position. As he argued in 2002, “That country would be a black sheep in any continental agreement. Turkish membership would expand the EU’s outer border to Iran and Iraq, which would move us into the epicenter of Middle East unrest. I oppose that.”

The ‘bridge argument,’ on the other hand, prefers to see Turkey as a potential middleman between the Christian democracies of Europe and the Muslim dictatorships of the Middle East. According to this logic, Turkey can show the Arab world that the EU is not an all-Christian club and can even help to export democratic values throughout the region. In effect, this perspective is based on post-9/11 and post-3/11 (the date of the deadly Madrid commuter train attack credited to Islamic terrorists) assumptions that you can’t just ignore the problems on the Arabian Peninsula because they’ll come and find you anyway. 

Would Turkey’s integration, then, bring unwanted conflict to the EU that it would otherwise be able to avoid? Or would it help to reconcile some of the Christian-Muslim animosity that is threatening to erupt into an all-out culture war? The answer is probably both. In the short run, the EU would certainly be more vulnerable to regional disputes throughout the Arab world, and it might even find itself entangled in the Kurds’ struggle for an independent Kurdistan. In the long run, however, they are likely to gain credibility throughout the Muslim world, most significantly of all from their own Muslim populations. This is particularly true in Denmark, where ethnic Turks constitute the country’s largest minority group, and it might help to foster a greater sense of inclusion within this largely isolated population. 

Implications for Human Rights 

A final argument for Turkey’s EU membership concerns the promotion of human rights, both in Turkey and in Denmark. In effect, this strategy would work two ways. On one hand, admission would be used as an incentive for bringing Turkey in line with basic rights standards, specifically regarding the Kurdish minority and women. On the other hand, membership would actually increase the rights of Turks living in Denmark, granting them rights related to language study and marriage that they would not have enjoyed otherwise. 

Unlike many of the other arguments for Turkey’s membership, the effectiveness of this approach is hard to dispute. This is largely due to the significant human rights achievements accomplished by the CEEC and the encouraging strides Turkey has already made. Indeed, in the five years since Turkey gained official candidate status, the government has passed sweeping legislation allowing for Kurdish-language private schools, state television broadcasts, and radio shows. This past October, a Kurdish song opened the 80th anniversary celebrations for the Turkish Republic, and recently, the prominent Kurdish politician Leyla Zana—jailed in 1994 for addressing the Turkish parliament in her ethnic dialect—was released when an appeals court deemed the charges unconstitutional.

Progress with other rights issues has been equally encouraging. Earlier this year, parliament passed a draft law banning discrimination against homosexuals, and more recently, the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate ordered Muslim leaders to condemn ‘honor killings’—the murder of women perceived to have undermined a family’s reputation. 

Still, many Danes argue that it is premature to start celebrating a complete transformation. As former Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, once an ardent advocate of Turkey’s immediate admittance, recently cautioned, “Turkey still has serious problems with human rights and the criminal justice system.” Indeed, many observers have noted a glaring gap between official policy and on-the-ground implementation. This perspective finds support in some recent developments, such as the prosecution of Kurdish politicians for addressing rallies in their mother tongue and the detention of 25 Kurdish journalists accused of terrorist ties. For this reason, human rights legislation must become instituted in actual daily life before Turkey can be taken seriously as an EU candidate.

Weighing In

The Danish debate concerning Turkey’s integration into the EU has focused on a diverse set of economic, cultural, and political issues. These arguments themselves constitute a hybrid mixture of fact and fiction, historical lessons and future predictions. Taken as a whole, the actual reality of the situation is neither as gloomy as critics warn, nor as sunny as optimists suggest. 

From an economic standpoint, Turkey is unlikely to present the kind of burden that many Danes fear. This is because the very premise on which these arguments are based—the idea of a massive influx of Turks who threaten to ruin the welfare state and take Danish jobs¬—is itself flawed. Safeguards against widespread immigration have been an integral part of all past EU enlargements and would undoubtedly be part of such an agreement with Turkey. Subsequently, in the event that Turkey begins accession negotiations in December, it would still be at least twenty years before Turks would enjoy complete freedom of movement and employment throughout the EU. Assuming that Turkey will have enacted free market reforms and benefited from the removal of trade barriers by then, the economic disparities that would fuel such immigration would be significantly reduced.  

The cultural debate has demonstrated a proclivity for exaggeration, with perpetrators on both sides of the fence. The fact is that Turkey is unlikely to serve either as an effective buffer for keeping out the turmoil of the Middle East or as a saviour in mending relations between Islam and the West. While neither approach is perfect, though, the latter at least presents a modicum of hope for improving the long-term security of the region. If the EU is serious about sending an inclusive message to the Muslim world, Turkey’s admission would be a step in the right direction.

The subject of political reforms has rightly received greater attention of late, since this is the issue that will likely make or break Turkey’s candidacy. To their credit, the Turkish government has introduced important legislation in the last few years that has improved the position of women in society and provided basic minority rights for the Kurdish population. Yet as various reports have demonstrated a glaring gap between official policy and actual reality, the pressing issue of implementation remains.

Given these mixed signals, it seems that the proper approach to Turkey’s integration is one that is supportive but cautious.  Turkey should begin accession negotiations as soon as it has met the requirements of the Copenhagen Criteria, but it would seem to benefit neither the EU nor Turkey to admit the country prematurely. 




Engin Asula, counsellor for the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen. 

Michael Jarlner, foreign affairs editor at Politiken.

Karl Kristian Ebbesen, Member of the Danish Parliament from the Danish People’s Party.

Cengiz Kahraman and Sadi Tekelioglu, editors of the Danish based Turkish newspaper, Haber.

Torsten Kjølby Nielsen, Head of Section, Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Amnesty International report: “Turkey: Women Confronting Family Violence,” June 2, 2004.

Danish Industry Report: “Turkish Potential for the EU.”

“Ex-Premier Turkey EU Turnaround.” The Copenhagen Post, March 19, 2004

“Remarks on Turkey Come Back to Haunt PM.” The Copenhagen Post, October 24, 2002.

“Turkish Message.” The Copenhagen Post, April 15, 2004.

“Is Turkey Ready for Europe?” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2003, vol. 82, no. 3.

“Eurobarometer 60: Public Opinion in the European Union.” The European Commission Directorate General, December 2003.

“Enlargement of the European Union: Flash Barometer 140.” The European Commission Directorate General, April 11, 2003.

“Executive Summary of the Turkish National Programme.” Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“A Day to Celebrate.” The Economist, June 10, 2004.

“Glimmerings of Tolerance.” The Economist, December 11, 2003.

“Too big for Europe?” The Economist, November 14th, 2002.


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