Europe almost left Turkey at the altar this week. With historic talks to join the mostly Muslim nation with the largely Christian European Union set for last Monday, the EU had cold feet. It looked askance at the bride: too Islamic, too poor, too populous. Only diplomatic arm-twisting saved the day.
Despite the fact that Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union for more than 40 years, despite its long membership in NATO, and despite the difficult democratic and economic reforms it's recently undertaken, a Turkey fully in the EU scares many Europeans.
A poll released Sunday shows 73 percent of Austrians feel Turkey differs too much culturally to join the EU. It was Austria that nearly derailed the start of membership talks, but the poll also showed 54 percent of EU residents object to accepting this country of 70 million, which only has a geographic toehold on the European continent.
At this wary time, what all parties need to remember is that this is going to be a very long engagement before the wedding. The talks will take at least 10 years, and more likely, 15 to 20. Second thoughts are understandable, but much can change over the coming years, and more important, much will have to change in order for these two cultures - civilizations, actually - to join hands in a single, democratic market.
From today's perspective, it's easy to see why this subject gives Europe sweaty palms. The EU just took on 10 new members last year. The threat of cheap immigrant labor from the Eastern European newcomers in part drove the French and Dutch to reject a new EU constitution this year.
Meanwhile, Spain and Britain experienced deadly terrorist bomb attacks carried out by Islamic extremists. Europeans are suddenly awake to the 14 million to 18 million Muslims in their midst, and not a few are wondering which ones are terrorists.
By 2020, however, Turkey will be different. It won't be as relatively poor (its economy is steadily growing). If it stays on track, it will have completed many more required EU reforms. That, after all, is the purpose of the "talks," which are actually a set of 35 areas in which Turkey must meet EU standards. To get even this far, it has had to free up its economy, put its military under greater civilian control, and improve human rights (which still leave a great deal to be desired).
But the EU will also have to change. A decade or more from now, it hopefully will have streamlined its bureaucracy to better manage its new members. And perhaps by then, Europe will have begun to come to terms with the fact that it already bears a Muslim imprint - it must do this, with or without Turkey.
The years, however, won't make Turkey less Muslim or an EU border that ends at Iran a less radical idea. Only a realization that Turkey can provide an aging Europe with young workers and a dynamic market, and that, with a secular, democratic government it can serve as a bridge to the Islamic world - only this understanding can relieve the fears.
Having promised Turkey membership talks, the EU stands behind that commitment more out of obligation. But a union of this sort has to be based on mutual understanding and appreciation. The two parties have at least 10 years to come to that point.