The domino effect of EU's misgivings on Turkey

Last weekend's summit meeting of the European Union in Copenhagen showed the EU a bit older, potentially much larger, but certainly no wiser. Ten new prospective members, mostly former states or satellites of the Soviet Union, were welcomed in a chorus of self-congratulations. But Europe failed to see why it would hasten to bring Turkey into the family.

One consequence, felt right away, is indefinite delay in resolution of the Cyprus problem, leaving serious uncertainties hanging loose in a continental community trying to button itself up.

It should have been quite clear in Copenhagen that Turkey is engaged in what could be a historic transition holding enormous stakes for Europe as well. This fall, the Turkish people swept away the political parties whose incompetence and corruption stood in the way of economic revival and social stability. A free election gave the moderate Islamist AKP - the Justice and Development Party - a huge parliamentary majority and a mandate, the first to a religion-based group, to govern the country.

The AKP's victory is, however, somewhat conditional. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, decreed it be a secular state. The Army, a dominant power in the land, sees its duty as preserving this legacy, and has over the years removed a number of governments that aroused its disapproval.

Together, with those who suspect the AKP of having a hidden activist Islamist agenda, it is watching the new government very closely. Nationalist elements, including hard-liners who, among other things, want no relaxation of Turkey's hold on northern Cyprus, have mounted vociferous opposition.

Internationally, election of the AKP, with its pro-Western orientation and willingness to make far-reaching democratic reforms, offered the chance of a settlement in Cyprus. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan contributed a compromise plan to end the military stalemate between the Turkish and the majority Greek Cypriots. Carefully crafted to meet the basic demands of both sides, it is the first realistic comprehensive design to bring them together as autonomous but equal parts under a common roof after nearly 30 years of forced separation. The Annan plan remains on the table. Meanwhile, as Greek Cyprus joins the EU, Turkish Cyprus remains isolated, unrecognized by the world except for Turkey.

Before Copenhagen, it seemed that Ankara was ready to challenge the nationalists by persuading the hard-line Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to drop his veto.

But the new government needed help to strengthen its hand, specifically through the EU at last setting a date to start negotiating Turkey's own admission to the EU. Membership is a longstanding aim and a high priority for the new regime as well as for significant segments of public opinion.

The Europeans, who work by consensus, waffled. Some felt queasy about having Turkey, a Muslim state of 70 million, added to historically Christian Europe.

Others are uncomfortable rubbing elbows with the 15 million or so Muslims who already live in Europe. And then, there are official requirements for EU membership that apply to all applicants, such as transparent, democratic government; civil control of the military; respect for human and minority rights; stable finances; a market economy; and a free press.

Turkey has long been deficient in many respects and the role of the military, above all, will not soon change.

But since August, parliament has been working on reform legislation. The new government has been especially diligent, from ending jailhouse torture to planning a new European-style constitution. A start has been made on relaxing fierce official restrictions on the large Kurdish minority.

Keeping Turkey out of Europe was never an option in Copenhagen, but some sought to delay starting the membership process. Germany and France proposed late 2005. Others, including Greece, Turkey's ancient foe, wanted quicker action. The summit finally settled, gingerly, on December 2004.

There is something unreal in the EU's misgivings about Turkey. The fear of millions of Turks streaming in, looking for jobs and upsetting the European order is ridiculous. Turkey has long been part of Europe in its most essential aspects, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (which preserved Western Europe's freedom in the cold war and remains a foundation of European unity) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a broad-based political action body.

But with practically a whole political and economic system to be overhauled, it will be 10 or 15 years before Turkey is a full member of the EU. By then it is likely to be in many ways a different country.

What the Copenhagen summit has done is to give the emerging forces of change in Turkey a focus for their energy and a prospect of reward (in the process maybe even resolving the Cyprus dilemma).

This is an approach that holds promise elsewhere, too - and nowhere more than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not far away.

Richard C. Hottelet was a long-time correspondent for CBS.

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