Four decades is a long time to wait. Since 1963, Turkey has been eligible to apply for membership to the European Union. It formally sought entry to the club 15 years ago, was turned down, but didn't give up. Ten years later, EU leaders pointedly excluded the NATO member - and Muslim giant - from its list of candidates. In May, Turkey watched from the sidelines as 10 newcomers, mostly from Eastern Europe, jumped ahead of it.
Now, Turkey's catching its first glimpse of light on the other side of the Bosporus.
Wednesday, the EU Commission, the union's executive body, is expected to issue a report recommending formal membership negotiations with Ankara. EU heads of state would have to agree, as well as set a date for starting talks. But the Commission's positive report card on Turkey's readiness should go a long way in pushing the leaders to a historic "yes" when they meet at a summit in December.
Historic not just because of the buildup to this moment, but because it would be an opportunity to prove that Christian and Muslim civilizations can share common democratic values in an open-market framework. This is especially important in the post-9/11 era, when terrorist jihadists are trying to convince Muslims that neither coexistence nor cooperation with the West and its values is possible or desirable.
The commission's expected recommendation, however, is no guarantee that Turkey will join the club. Member states could erect roadblocks. French President Jacques Chirac for instance, wants lawmakers in his country, which has the largest Muslim population in the EU, to change the Constitution so that new EU members must be approved by national referendum. A recent poll showed the majority of French opposed to Turkish entry in the near term. And powerful politicians in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria strongly oppose a seat for Turkey at the EU table.
Turkey may have one foot on the European continent, but as a Muslim country, very poor, very big, and bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran, it frightens many Europeans. In trying to convince Brussels that it's a good fit, Ankara's secular government has made great strides in economic, judicial, and military reform in recent years. But the EU report, while supposedly endorsing membership talks, points out that Turkey still needs to work on implementing reforms, especially in the area of human rights.
The expected negotiation process of at least 10 years would be time enough for Turkey to satisfy Europeans' practical concerns.
But their wariness of Muslim influence is another matter. "Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?" French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin posed last month. France is famous for its separation of church and state.
Defusing such concerns will require consistent effort from EU leaders. They can start that work now.