Old prejudices reemerge

As the decision to admit Turkey to the European Union nears, some Europeans can't forget what happened more than three centuries ago.

Published September 22, 2004 2:21PM (EDT)

Sipping red wine on a hillside terrace high above Vienna, Austria, Helmut pointed to the Polish church next door, convinced that the epic drama played out here in 1683 still spoke to central Europeans down the centuries.

"I know one Turkish bloke," said the Viennese social worker. "He's got two wives. Neither of them can speak a word of German. He beats them up. He's got two sons as well. They're terrified of him. They're just different from us. We're Christians. They're Muslims. And these Muslims are getting more and more extreme. It's time to make a choice. I'm against it."

What Helmut is against, like two out of three Austrians, is Turkey's joining the European Union. Gerhard, the landlord serving him his wine, joined in eagerly. "This is Europe, and we're in danger of losing our identity with all these people from Turkey and Africa. We Christians are losing our faith while the Muslims are getting more fundamentalist."

Neither man wanted to give his full name. Both were keen to dwell on history. The place they were sitting, a hillside northeast of Vienna, was where 321 years ago last week the Polish king, John III, after a plea from the Vatican, marshaled a huge Roman Catholic army and went galloping down the mountain to save Christendom, Europe and Austria, routing the Turks, raising the 61-day Ottoman siege of Vienna, and halting the Turkish advance into the European heartland.

The legacy of the Turkish attempt to take the Hapsburg capital includes the greatest of Viennese institutions, the coffee house (for the Turks brought the bean to Austria), as well as a dread of the Muslim invader that is branded into folk memories across large swaths of central Europe and the Balkans.

In neighboring Hungary, which was under the Turks for 150 years, the national gallery near Buda castle is dominated by a giant canvas illustrating the mass slaughter that accompanied the fall of the town of Szigetvar to the Turks in 1556.

When the Serbian general Ratko Mladic supervised the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, he relished the mass murder as Serbian revenge.

Slovenia, the poster boy of post-Yugoslav success, is integrated into the European Union and NATO as a stable and prosperous democracy. But the uglier, intolerant aspect is that Ljubljana is the sole E.U. capital city without a mosque. For decades, Slovene Catholics have thwarted attempts by the country's 50,000-strong Muslim community to build a mosque, although the constitutional court earlier this year finally threw out demands for a referendum that would have banned building one.

Turkey's Islamist prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, goes to Brussels tomorrow to argue for Ankara's seat at the E.U. table. An E.U. commission report in two weeks will set the scene for a formal E.U. summit decision in December on whether Turkey will be admitted to talks to join the union.

And as crunch time nears for one of the E.U.'s biggest-ever decisions, Turkophobia is sweeping the region, deep-seated European prejudice is showing its true colors, and political elites are panicking.

Deliberately recalling the "clash of civilizations" of 300 years ago, the liberal Viennese newsweekly Profil this week headlined its editorial "The Turks at the Gates of Vienna," contending that Turkey's accession was "not so much a risk as a danger."

The outgoing Dutch European commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, delivered his parting shot a fortnight ago by warning of the "Islamisation of Europe" should Turkey join the union. "The relief of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain," he declared. The outgoing Austrian commissioner, Franz Fischler, stirred up more strong feeling by asserting that broad anti-Turkish public opinion across the E.U. should not be ignored. "The E.U. can't just be a construct of diplomats."

In Germany last week, the opposition Christian Democrat leader, Angela Merkel, who bids fair to be the next chancellor of the E.U.'s biggest power, came out categorically against Turkish membership, urging all her fellow center-right leaders in the E.U. to form an anti-Turkish bloc.

In Austria, the far-right leader and chief mischief maker, Jörg Haider, is threatening to bring down the center-right government if it gives a green light to Turkish entry talks. The government is in any case against Turkish entry, as are the opposition Social Democrats.

Austrian opinion polls show two-thirds against admitting Turkey and only one in five in favor. In Germany, home to 2.5 million Turks, the country's biggest ethnic minority, a poll last week showed 55 percent against Turkey's joining.

A detailed survey of public opinion in Europe and the U.S., published last week by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., found Europeans deeply confused at the prospect of a Muslim country of 70 million joining the union. A pan-European survey issued last week found that 40 percent were not sure whether Turkey's membership was good or bad. "Many Europeans are ambivalent," the survey noted. "Although there is no European consensus on Turkey's membership, the fact that many Europeans have not made up their minds creates the prospect for a constructive debate in Europe over Turkey's future."

In France, meanwhile, the polls show a slim majority in favor of Turkey's joining "eventually" despite strong opposition from much of the French elite. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the architect of the new European constitution, which some claim is specifically designed to keep Turkey out, said last year that Turkish membership would signal "the end of the E.U." Turkey was "not a European country." It had "a different culture, a different approach, and a different way of life."

Both France's President Jacques Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder support Turkey's bid. Turkish membership is even more strongly supported by Britain.

Amid the fears, the Poles, eternally proud of saving Christendom from Islam in 1683, are magnanimous in victory. The Polish priest tending the Vienna church dedicated to the raising of the siege says: "Back then, the Turks had to be defeated. It was necessary. Now it's different. We need to be all one big family. Of course Turkey is European. Of course they should be in the E.U."

For admitting Turkey: Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland

Against admitting Turkey: Austria, Luxembourg

Divided: Germany (government for, opposition and public opinion against), France, Denmark, Hungary, Greece (government for, public opinion strongly against), Poland, Belgium, Netherlands, Slovenia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia

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