It's time for policymakers of the 25 European Union (EU) nations, as well as leaders of 70 million Turks, to take a deep breath, step back, and carefully consider whether it's wise to halt or impede Turkey's effort to join the EU.
Turkey's pro-Western government, along with a majority of its business leaders and its secular-minded, Westernized military, is committed to accession. But some Turkish politicians who have favored membership for decades have recently expressed doubts because of widespread European rejection.
Strategic and human considerations favor Turkey's bid, if it has fulfilled all the preconditions – a big "if" at this juncture. Now that EU ministers have postponed a membership progress report from Oct. 24 to Nov. 8, decisionmakers happily have more time to review the pros and cons of this crucial question.
Membership advocates insist that EU rules would stabilize Turkey's economy and political structure.
But objections are growing louder in European capitals. It wasn't always this way. Back in 1959, France invited a wary Turkish government to join the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), as an associate member, which it did in 1963. Today, Nicholas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, the two front-running candidates in France's 2007 presidential election, and senior politicians in Austria, also facing elections, urge some kind of "privileged relationship" for Turkey, short of full-fledged membership.
Turkey began knocking at Europe's door when it applied to fully join the former European Community in 1987. For more than a decade, it met with refusals, based partly on the Ankara government's poor relations with Greece, especially conflict related to Turkey's 1974 invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus.
In the 1990s, Turkey agreed to a customs union with the EU, abolishing many trade tariffs with its members. Its candidacy got a further boost in 2002, when Turkey's Islamist but pro-European Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power and began making the reforms necessary for EU accession. Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, a consistent proponent of EU membership, has pushed through abolition of the death penalty, cracked down on torture, and secured more rights for Turkey's substantial Kurdish minority.
Today, support for accession has plummeted among both Turks and Western Europeans, with levels of approval well below 50 percent.
Austria, mindful of its 17th-century role as a bulwark against Turkish invasion of Western Europe, and commentators elsewhere object to having Turkey's 99.8-percent Muslim population join the EU. They call it a "Christian club," an epithet also used by Turkish and other Muslim opponents of EU membership. Fear of massive Turkish immigration, which could deprive Western Europeans of jobs, is widespread.
Another objection is that only 3 percent of Turkey's vast territory is within geographical Europe, leading to a European debate about where Europe's real borders should be. European critics condemn Turkey's acts of closing newspapers opposed to government policy. They also criticize its prosecution of intellectuals and authors – such as prizewinning novelist Orhan Pamuk – for "insulting Turkishness" or discussing the 1915-17 massacres of Armenians.
Kurdish terrorist bombings at Turkish tourist resorts and guerrilla warfare by the Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party are further prickly issues.
But Cyprus remains the key. The EU requires Turkey to recognize the Greek Cypriot-governed Cyprus Republic by opening Turkish harbors and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes. Ankara and the so-called Turkish state in northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey) refuse. They demand that the EU first lift "embargoes" against the north by unfreezing promised economic aid. But the EU and the international community refuse, arguing that this would be de facto recognition of the Turkish Cypriot regime. The Greek government, despite hostility from the Greek public, strongly backs Turkish EU membership in order to strengthen relations with its neighbor and old rival, Turkey.
Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer eloquently argues Turkey's case for membership. In a Sept. 27 article in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Mr. Fischer reminds us that Turkey, as a modernizing Muslim EU member, would be a bridge between Islam and Europe; would extend benefits of the economic eurozone; and would help to curb the spread of Islamist extremism and violence.
The EU ministers should reassure Turkey in November that it belongs in an expanded EU. The protracted accession negotiations – possibly as long as 10 to 15 years – with the desirable goal of full Turkish membership could do much to stabilize Turkey's turbulent Middle East neighborhood. The United States should continue to encourage all concerned to keep moving in that direction.
• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, has covered the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region for more than 40 years.