For Turkey, a long road ahead to join EU

The 25-member European Union agreed to open talks, but Turkey must clear significant hurdles to join the club.

Turkey was ushered into the European Union's waiting room this week. No country has yet left emptyhanded, but Turkey will have to wait until at least 2014 before the door is opened to full membership of the EU.

A decade or more of negotiations lies ahead in which the 25 EU powers will seek to ensure that Ankara's politics, economics, human rights record, and judicial system pass muster. Turkey must incorporate the 100,000-page EU rule book into its law. There are 35 policy areas that require "harmonizing" with EU standards, from food safety to social and environment policy. Negotiations can be suspended if basic EU freedoms are violated.

Earlier this week, the current EU president, Britain, finally secured agreement on the process. "This says we are an open diverse continent which can bridge the gap between Islam and Christianity," said one British diplomat.

But Britain's vision for membership expansion has always been at odds with other EU heavyweights - France and Germany - that have traditionally preferred to concentrate on deeper integration of the few rather than broader assimilation of the many.

Why is Austria so opposed to Turkey's possible membership?

Austria, a country of 8.2 million, is home to 250,000 Turks. Fears have grown of a new influx if Turkey joins the EU, aggravating unemployment in the Alpine country. Popular opinion in swaths of continental Europe has turned heavily against Turkish accession for economic and cultural reasons; some politicians pander to such a viewpoint to win votes.

There may also be historic undertones to Austria's standpoint; Vienna was the capital of the Habsburg Empire, which for centuries viewed the Ottoman Empire on its southeast flank as a threat.

Why was it so important to Austria for Croatia to become an EU member?

The Austrians argued that if Turkey, with its different culture and problematic human rights record, should be taken on trust, so should Croatia, whose government, democracy, geography, demography, and approach to human rights would - according to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel - make it easier for the EU to absorb.

Some saw ulterior motives.

Austria's near neighbor, Croatia, is a far more suitable EU candidate for Vienna than Turkey. The two countries have much in common: They are small, predominantly Catholic, and historically allied. As a small EU power, Austria's voice tends to be drowned out by bigger players. The more central European allies it can rally to its cause, the greater the clout it will wield.

Why will Turkey's accession bid take nearly 10 years?

Turkey will not be admitted before 2014 because of EU financial constraints. Turkish accession is expected to place considerable strain on EU resources, and the budget from 2007-2013 doesn't take this into account.

But accession will probably take longer - and may even fail - as Turkey must clear formidable hurdles in the 35 policy areas that demand harmonization. Line-by-line negotiations on this will start in several months.

The EU will then set benchmarks that Turkey will have to reach, demonstrating the necessary legislation and implementation.

In particular, Ankara will have to spend billions of euros to bring its environmental practices in line with EU norms; social and employment law will have to be overhauled to respect nondiscriminatory direct-ives; and state aid to poor regions and industries must be discontinued. It will also have to recognize Cyprus.

Who will decide if Turkey can become a member?

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, will have day-to-day responsibility for checking progress on the 35 policy areas, or "chapters."

Each chapter must then be ratified unanimously by ministers of national governments. Some countries may put the issue of Turkish accession to their own people in national votes. So far, France and Austria have signaled their intention to do so.

"Turkey must win the hearts and minds of European citizens," said European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso this week. "They are the ones who at the end of the day will decide about Turkey's membership."

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