Turkey's EU Bid: Resistance Is On The Rise

When it comes to its ally Turkey, the U.S. has long had a consistent goal: The European Union should take in the largely Muslim eastern Mediterranean nation as a full member. That was one of the key messages when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President George W. Bush in Washington on Jan. 28.

Back in Europe, though, that message isn't going over well. Just as European nations are starting to mend the bitter divisions of the past year over issues such as the war in Iraq and a new EU constitution, the question of Turkish membership is threatening to polarize the Continent again. At a summit planned for December in the Netherlands, 25 EU members -- today's 15, plus the 10 new ones entering in May -- face a firm deadline for deciding whether to begin formal membership talks with Turkey. "This is the most difficult question of all," warns Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament. "It's about how we define Europe."

Sparks Could Fly

For Erdogan, the stakes couldn't be higher. The Prime Minister, whose Islamist-tinged Justice & Development Party won a landslide victory in late 2002, is betting his political future on a positive membership decision by Europe. That's one reason why his government has been pushing vast political and economic reforms -- from guaranteeing the rights of ethnic minorities to trimming the powers of the huge Turkish military. In late January, Erdogan even unblocked stalled negotiations aiming to reunite Cyprus, which has been divided along religious lines since 1974. "We've been very responsible in performing our duties, and now the EU should perform its duties," Erdogan recently told BusinessWeek.

The U.S. sees EU membership as the best way to underpin Turkey as a stable role model for the Islamic world. And Washington is worried that a decision to reject the Turks could spark a fundamentalist backlash. But for European leaders, the issue is increasingly complicated. Recent European Commission polls show that 55% of the French and 42% of the Germans are opposed to admitting countries like Poland and Hungary to the EU -- much less Muslim Turkey. And Islam itself is a hot-button issue. Authorities in France, Belgium, and Bavaria are proposing laws to ban the Islamic head scarf in state schools. "Turkey is becoming a symbol for too much Islamic influence in Europe," says Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform.

Emotions are also rising in the political arena. In Germany, the conservative opposition is likely to play the Turkey card against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who backs Turkey's EU membership, in regional and European Parliament elections this year. In France, polls show that the largely anti-Islamic far right is likely to score big in regional elections.

All this could derail an informal agreement among European leaders to give Ankara a qualified green light for membership next December. That agreement, say EC sources, would mean naming a firm date for starting negotiations, with the understanding that they could drag out for a decade. "I don't expect a 'no' in December, but rather a 'yes, but' or a 'yes, if,"' says Ali Babacan, Turkey's Economics Minister. Even that, however, may be overly optimistic.

By John Rossant in Paris

Edited by Rose Brady

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