With a victory by Germany's conservative opposition looking fairly certain when voters go to the polls next month, I've been trying to accentuate the positive.
I've never been convinced that Angela Merkel, the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), will be a more zealous reformer than Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been, but I still hold out hope that the conservatives might be able to shake Germany out of its current economic funk.
I would have no problem with loosening some of the country's job protection measures or lowering non-wage labor costs in an attempt to slash unemployment, as the CDU has occasionally mooted. And at this point, I'm not sure whether Schröder -- even if he managed a surprise comeback win -- would be able to convince his Social Democratic Party (SPD) to back more radical measures to get Europe's largest economy back on track.
But just as I start thinking I can overlook some of the uglier aspects of her party's platform, Merkel decides to step up her campaign against Turkey's attempt eventually to join the European Union. On Friday, Merkel sent a letter to conservative EU heads of state ahead of a Sept. 1 summit. In it she renewed her call for the EU to offer Ankara a downgraded "privileged partnership" instead of full membership.
She wants to raise the issue at the meeting of European conservatives which will take place just before an informal meeting on Thursday of EU foreign ministers, where accession negotiations with Turkey -- expected to open membership negotiations on Oct. 3 -- will be discussed.
Besides having a nasty whiff of anti-Islamic sentiment -- which is as contemptible as it is misplaced -- the timing of Merkel's initiative smacks of pandering to darker anti-foreigner sentiment simply in order to fish for votes.
Sadly, this isn't the first time we've seen this "fortress Germany" mentality from the Christian Democrats. This is the same party that brought us the horrible Leitkultur debate about how Germany need some sort of guiding Teutonic culture instead of the healthy multiculturalism seen in most western democracies. It is the same vein of German conservatism that is opposed to immigration and refuses to comprehend that German citizenship should be a matter of where someone is born and not whether they have German blood.
The biggest irony, of course, is that Merkel doesn't seem to realize that the moderate Islamic AK party of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is simply a Muslim version of her Christian Democratic Union -- a conservative party with its moral compass rooted in religion.
Merkel and others opposed to Turkey joining the EU contend the country is too large and too poor to become a part of the 25-member bloc, which is already overstretched after its enlargement including most of Eastern Europe last year.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that the EU needs some time to consolidate its recent expansion. However, the current challenges facing Europe are no argument against Turkish membership. First of all, Turkish accession is realistically at least 15 years off. That's a long time and the prospect of eventual membership would be a driving force in pushing along the country's modernization.
The West needs Turkey
In the age of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Europe -- and the rest of the world -- need Turkey as a prosperous, peaceful and democratic Muslim nation. So long as other Islamic nations are either politically oppressed or outright hostile to western ideals, the worst thing the EU could do is push Turkey away.
It shocks me that Merkel and others opposed to its bid don't seem to realize the potential danger a jilted Turkey could pose as reactionary and anti-reformist forces were strengthened. Does Europe really want a hostile nation supporting an extreme form of Islam at its doorstep?
Clearly, Turkey has a lot of work to do politically, economically and socially before it has a serious chance of joining Europe's elite club. The country must continue to improve its human rights record and it needs to strengthen its protection of minority rights for its large Kurdish population. But engagement by the EU is the best guarantor that the country will continue down the path of reform.