Turkey knocks at Europe's door

Ankara's membership bid looms as the prickliest issue at the EU expansion summit, beginning today.

The broad avenues of Ilter Turkmen's neighborhood are lined with posh furniture stores, modern banks and gourmet eateries. At home, he has a nice collection of impressionist paintings. And he admits that his French is stronger than his eloquent English.

One might expect as much of a former foreign minister, but what the world might not expect is that his home is on the Asian side of Istanbul - the start of the Turkish mainland that many in Europe see as belonging to a continent, community, and culture not their own.

Whether Turkey belongs in Europe is the chief controversy surrounding a two-day summit, beginning today in Copenhagen, on the European Union's expansion. The Turkish question is forcing Europe to decide where its boundaries and purposes begin and end.

Turkey's new government has been making a vigorous push for an earlier and exact date for talks on joining the Union - questioning aloud how Western powers can spurn Turkey's bid to become a member of Europe's club yet expect Turkish cooperation in a potential war in neighboring Iraq.

Ten other countries, mostly former Eastern-bloc nations, are about to be given the keys to Europe. That leaves the Turks, original partners in NATO, suspicious that the reason their membership has been put on the slow track is that the banks of the Bosporus - the broad straits separating the European part of Turkey from the Near Eastern - are lined with mosques and not churches.

"Our ascension to the EU can show that Islam and Western values are not incompatible," says Mr. Turkmen. "It is an Islamic country which is trying to have a full-fledged democracy."

So far, Europe says that it has to try harder. Attempting to live up to the EU's political standards, Turkey outlawed the death penalty this summer and passed legislation allowing broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language, banned during years of separatist violence.

But European officials say that some of these changes have yet to be implemented, and that the country must make still others, expanding democratic freedoms and ensuring that civilian power prevails over the military, which removed an elected government as recently as five years ago.

That the disbanded government's heirs are now at the helm is an irony lost on no one. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), formed by the ambitious class of young politicians fleeing banned Islamic parties swept up enough votes in last month's election to form a rare single-party government. Many of the limited democratic policies set by Turkey's secular military establishment had been formed to keep such Islam-oriented politicians from power. While AKP predecessors scoffed at joining the EU and dismissed it is a "Christian club," AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing hard for a date for Turkey's inclusion.

"Now they understand that to improve their own freedom of movement, they need the West, and they need democracy more than anyone else," says Mr. Turkmen.

Mr. Erdogan himself is a symbol of Turkey's internal tug-of-war between democracy and devlet - a Turkish term for a state that also encompasses its formidable security and military forces. He was banned from serving as prime minister, due partly to a sedition conviction.

Despite this, Erdogan is being received all over Europe - and in Washington by President Bush - as though he, and not his deputy, Abdullah Gul, were prime minister. Earlier this week, Erdogan accused Europe of having a double standard when it comes to Turkey.

Rusen Cakir, a veteran journalist who covers the country's Islamic movement, says that other than religion, Turks cannot see a compelling reason why they should be left out, when countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania are being ushered in.

"The religious and cultural issue is the leading issue," Mr. Cakir says. "In the Western mind, before there was political Islam, the Muslim was always the 'other.' "

European officials have tried to deflect the focus from religious differences. But former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing raised Turkish suspicions when he told a French newspaper that Turkey was not a European country and that inviting it into the EU would mean "the end of Europe." He pointed out that 95 percent of Turkey's land mass lies in Asia.

"This really borders on orientalism, if not racism," says Ali Carkoglu, research director for the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

European officials say Copenhagen's decision will hinge on proof of more change in Turkey. "There are a number of criteria which have not been fully met," says Luigi Narbone, a political officer with the European delegation to Turkey in Ankara. "In freedom of association and freedom of expression, the fulfillment of priorities in our opinion has only been partial."

The AK Party has just introduced a package of legislation of reforms, aimed at stopping torture and loosening restrictions on speech. The new parliament has also began the process of revoking a law that prevents anyone with a criminal record from serving in high office, paving the way for Erdogan to move into the prime minister's seat in two to three months.

But Turks complain that other countries, such as Spain and Greece, were let in without having to jump through so many hoops first. "Europe used the carrot of membership as a pull factor" to make social and economic reforms, says Mr. Carkoglu.

The Turks were first offered the prospect of membership in 1963, when most of the current inductees were still behind the Iron Curtain. Turkey feels the rewards for its loyalty to democratic, free-market Europe ought to be greater. Otherwise, Erdogan has said, "Turkey might have to rethink its path" - including possibly its NATO membership.

Whether Turkey gets a conditional promise to review its bid in 2004 or 2005, or a firmer commitment may not seem crucial in Brussels.

But Turkey worries that by 2004, the 10 newcomers will add to the number of member countries deciding on Turkey's accession - even one European parliament's veto could keep Turkey out.

"When those countries become members, they might reject Turkey from the point of view of competitiveness," says Professor Dogan Kargul, an Istanbul University economist. He says Europe sees Turkey as "some kind of Middle Eastern country ... waiting to collect our benefits from the rich countries."

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