Wariness over Turkey's EU bid

But Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to recommend that Turkey begin membership process.

As the European Union approaches a contentious decision - whether to let Turkey join the club - the Continent's rulers seem to have left their citizens behind.

The European Commission is expected to recommend Wednesday that Turkey be invited to negotiate its membership in the union, 42 years after Ankara first applied.

But almost everywhere across Europe, the public is opposed to EU membership for Turkey. There is a widespread feeling that Turkey is too big, too poor, too distant - and, perhaps most salient, too Muslim to make a proper member of the European Union.

Proponents of the idea say that voters will catch up to their leaders by the time Turkey has finished negotiating the terms of its entry into the EU, which won't be for another 10 to 15 years.

"Popular hostility is a question of ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding", says Albert Rohan, a former top Austrian diplomat who joined a blue-ribbon Independent Commission on Turkey, which last month urged talks with Turkey.

That hostility is real, however, and "we cannot afford to ignore public opinion, leaving European construction to the diplomats," argued Franz Fischler, the EU's agriculture commissioner, in a recent letter to his fellow commissioners. A recent poll found 56 percent of the French opposed to Turkish accession, compared to 36 percent in favor.

Those figures appear to jibe with feelings elsewhere in Europe: the last EU-wide poll on the subject, two years ago, found 49 percent of Europeans against, and 32 percent for, Turkish aspirations.

Among the French, the biggest worry was that migrant Turkish workers would flood Europe. To meet that fear, the Commission was expected to suggest limits to Turks' freedom of movement within the EU - restrictions that apply to no other member state.

Behind most people's misgivings, says François Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, lies religion. "It is more or less spoken or more or less hidden, but the major component in popular rejection of Turkey's admission is Islam," he argues.

Some public figures have the same reservations.. The Wall Street Journal recorded French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as pondering whether "we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism."

The EU commissioner for internal markets, Fritz Bolkestein, worried that Turkey's entry, which would bring 82 million Muslims into the club, could lead to the Islamization of Europe.

Such an outcome, he said in a speech last month, would mean "the deliverance of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain," referring to a Catholic Polish army's defeat of the Turkish army outside Vienna more than 300 years ago.

Supporters say that welcoming Turkey into the EU would offer an important example of a modern, democratic Muslim country respecting human rights, which could help take the sting out of a potential "clash of civilizations."

"We all say we want to support democracy in the Muslim and Arab world, and here we have a chance to do that," says Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner for humanitarian affairs. "It would be a good idea to take the first real opportunity we have had."

In order to join the EU, countries must guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for minorities. The Turkish government has introduced reforms recently to reach these standards, at least on paper.

But Turkey's recent history of torture and military coups, and a vicious campaign against autonomy-minded Kurds leave some observers skeptical.

"The start of negotiations now is too early," said Hans-Gert Pöttering, who heads the European People's Party, the largest party in the European Parliament. "The human rights situation is dissatisfying," he told reporters.

The European Parliament is one of the institutions where Turkey - with a population (currently estimated at 69 million) expected to reach 82 million by 2020, the largest in Europe - would have most influence, since it would send more members than any other country.

That has sparked fears for the EU's future among critics, such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president and architect of the new European constitution. He predicted last year that Turkish membership would spell "the end of the EU" because Turkey has "a different culture, a different approach, and a different way of life."

Others argue against membership on grounds of geography: 90 percent of Turkey is in Asia, not Europe, and it borders Iraq, Syria, and Iran - not exactly preferred European neighbors.

But it is precisely that geography, proponents say, that would make Turkey such a valuable member of the EU. Strategically placed, militarily powerful, and influential in the energy-rich new states of Central Asia, Turkey "is a question of life insurance for the EU," says Michel Rocard, former French prime minister. "Geostrategy imposes [membership] on us."

Turkey's vibrant economy and huge market are attractive to the mainly sluggish economies of Western Europe. But some predict unmanageably huge EU handouts to Turkey, in the form of agricultural subsidies and development grants, to bring its living standards up to European norms. Turks have only one-fourth the wealth of their EU cousins.

Even if talks begin early next year, Turkey is unlikely to meet membership conditions in less than a decade. By then, European leaders hope, their electorates will have come around.

Indeed, though 56 percent of polled French said they opposed membership today, 63 percent said they would be in favor if Turkey makes "the necessary political and economic changes."

Turkey basics

• Area: 312,232 square miles (a little larger than Texas).

• Population: 69 million.

• Ethnic groups: Turkish 80%; Kurdish 20%

• GDP, per capita: $6,700

• Religions: Muslim 99.8%; Other (mostly Christians and Jews) 0.2%

- Source: CIA World Factbook

Tomorrow: the view from Turkey.

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