Turkey's decades-long quest to join the European Union looks set to take a great leap forward. On Oct. 6 the European Commission in Brussels is due to release its opinion on whether Turkey has met the legal conditions to start negotiations on becoming a full EU member. Then, in mid-December, Europe's 25 political leaders are scheduled to give their formal consent to opening negotiations.
Listen to the official noise coming out of Brussels and Ankara, and it sounds as if Turkey has nothing to worry about. For Günter Verheugen, the EC's Enlargement Commissioner, "no remaining obstacles are on the table." Conservative Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has turned getting a green light from Europe into a personal political crusade, is similarly upbeat: "There is no reason not to receive a positive answer," he told reporters after returning from a round of talks in Brussels on Sept. 23.
Don't think this is the end game, though. Far from it. Anxieties about the wisdom of incorporating Turkey into the EU are rising across Europe. In recent weeks influential EC commissioners like Franz Fischler and Frits Bolkestein have warned about the consequences of letting an overwhelmingly Muslim Near Eastern state of 75 million into the EU. Given demographic trends, Turkey would be the most populous EU. nation in barely fifteen years.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin voiced similar reservations in late September, and outgoing EC President Romano Prodi is known to be deeply concerned about Turkish EU membership. French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a likely presidential candidate in 2007, is calling for a national referendum on Turkish EU membership.
No one is denying that Turkey has made enormous progress in making sure its laws and institutions conform to European norms. The death penalty was abolished in 2002, and the Turkish military has a reduced political role. That means the EC is likely to rule in October that Turkey has fulfilled the criteria demanded of aspiring EU members.
But the growing jitters could have an impact on the December decision -- the key one if Turkey is to begin formal negotiations in mid-2005. Recent polls by the German Marshall Fund suggest that only about one-third of Europeans support Turkey's entry into the EU. Sylvie Goulard, a former top adviser to the EC President, argues that a green light to Turkey in December in the face of rising popular opposition could create a backlash against European integration itself. That in turn could undercut attempts to win approval for Europe's draft constitution in a series of referendums in 2005 and 2006. "You can't spread democracy without respecting it," says Goulard, referring to the way EU leaders often make important decisions behind closed doors.
Europe's major league politicians such as France's Jacques Chirac, Germany's Gerhard Schröder, and Britain's Tony Blair are strongly in favor of giving Turkey a green light. But the ground is shifting under them. Angela Merkel, the forceful head of Germany's opposition Christian Democrats, is set to use a Nov. 4 summit of European center-right political leaders to seek support for her vision of a "special status" for Turkey rather than full membership. And although its votes aren't binding, the European Parliament may also take up the issue in advance of the EU's end-of-the-year summit.
One solution being discussed is to give Turkey a go-ahead in December, while making it clear that membership in the EU is not guaranteed at the end of negotiations. That would be quite a switch. No country has begun accession negotiations and then failed to win full EU membership. Yet an open-ended solution has attractions for both sides. It would allow Erdogan to continue with far-reaching economic reforms, opening the way to badly needed foreign investment. And it would give European leaders temporary political cover from a voter backlash. But given the volatile political climate within Europe, that may be a difficult balancing act. Turkey's entry into the EU? It's far from a sure thing.
By John Rossant