This week’s European Union summit on beginning formal accession talks with Turkey ended in success despite the single-minded opposition of Turkey’s old sparring partner Austria. It was Austria, not Greece as you could have expected, that single-mindedly opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU. Given that relations between Greece and Turkey have been somewhat strained for the past few decades, in particular because of the ongoing disgraceful situation concerning Cyprus, this may have come as a bit of a surprise to some. After all, Greece and Turkey have been rivals for at least 3,300 years, ever since a young man from around the North-West Anatolian town of Hisarlik eloped with his Greek chum form Sparta’s wife. So one could expect that given the lack of any such recent outrages, the Austrians would have come to terms with their traditional rivalry with the former Ottomans and buried that particular hatchet. However the price for Austria’s change of mind if not of heart – the opening of accession talks with neighbouring Croatia – suggests that the Austro-Turkish struggle for influence over the Balkans isn’t quite over. Although there’s precious little evidence that Ankara has any interest in becoming once again closely involved in that particular nest of vipers. There’ll be trouble in the Balkans, yet.
While as always, the EU ship sailed closer and closer to the diplomatic wind, Chancellor Schuessel of Austria explained on television that "it was necessary to understand people's concerns about the EU's ability to truly welcome", which at face value is a reasonable statement. The Austrians may be rather less keen than anyone else in the EU on Turkish membership, but there’s hardly overwhelming popular support for the idea. According to Eurobaremeter, only 10% of Austrians favour Turkish accession, but across the EU, the figure is only around 37%, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. So if the EU’s political elite don’t want a repeat of the last summer’s disastrous referenda on the proposed EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands over Turkey (and bear in mind that at the moment, France at least is planning on holding a referendum on Turkish accession when the time comes), it’s going to have to address some popular concerns.
The big question that we all have to answer is this: what is the EU going to be? This raises others. What is it for? Where does it stop? In fact, what is Europe? Is it a cultural sphere? Is it simply a geographical area limited by seas and the Urals? If so, where exactly in the Urals? If it’s defined by culture, which particular aspects of culture? There are those who maintain that it’s religion. Jacques Delors once said that the EU was a “Christian club”, and I’m sure that this is a statement that resonates with many Austrians, and other Europeans. But this argument doesn’t really hold water. Certainly most Europeans are nominally Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox or any of the branches of Protestantism that you care to choose. But how many Europeans really define themselves in this way? What proportion of those who oppose the entry of a predominantly Muslim population into the EU make any decision based on their religion more than let’s say once a month? How often do they attend a service? For most them, not very often I’d wager. This is a difficult argument because it runs into the wall of religious and arguably racial prejudice. This is a low-level, insidious emotion that lurks in the background, but it’s real nonetheless.
In an uncharacteristically optimistic article this week, Timothy Garton Ash, who has been pretty miserable and downcast of late, attempts to answer some of these questions, and does so well. He claims that the EU is not becoming some sort of super-state as many rabid anti-Europeans (Eurosceptic is such an anaemic term) claim. Neither is it simply a giant free trade zone as many continental Euro-enthusiasts fear that the British want to make in into. It’s a new form of Commonwealth of Nations for want of a better term, united by a common political vision, a commitment to democracy, human rights, and improving the lot of its peoples through economic strength. These may sound like vague concepts, and in a way they are, but they have a life of their own, and it will take more than populist political pandering to the electorate’s fears to stop them.
In the meantime, if Europeans need a simpler idea of what unites Europe to cling onto until such time as the aforementioned ones gain some credence amongst them, I suggest that rather than any political goal, geographic notion or religious criterion, they should use the pan-European love of mushroom hunting. In every member state of the EU (except for the UK, which explains why by and large, the UK has never really embraced the European ideal as much as its partners) and in its expansion frontier to the East, people love picking mushrooms. It is an activity that unites generations, provides a sense of continuity, stimulates contemplation, and leads to a social gathering around a very special meal, while fostering a friendly sense of competition. I am reliably informed that our Turkish friends are very keen mushroom hunters too.
So go out to the woods, pick some mushrooms, reflect on the fact that fellow Europeans and aspiring Europeans throughout the continent are doing the same. After the weekend, email or telephone your friends across Europe and tell them about it, thereby creating a pan-European sense of purpose. Calm down, enjoy it, relax, let the anxiety slip away, and together we shall build a Europe of the Mushroom Hunting Peoples!