Turkey has been knocking on the door of the European Union since 1988. EU membership would not only provide an economic boost for Turkey, but also reaffirm the image it is struggling to achieve: that of a secular democracy with a balance between Islam and the West rarely seen in the Muslim world.
These days, Turks are closely watching Cyprus, because a solution for the island nationwhich is divided between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the southwould enhance Turkey's own chances for EU membership. Cyprus is set to join the EU in May, although membership benefits will in effect apply only to the Greek Cypriot south if the two sides do not unify in time for the scheduled accession. This means that Turkish troops in the north would technically be posted on Cypriot, or EU, territory, and the Greek south, with a voice in the EU, would have the power to reject Turkey's application to join.
Although Cyprus has been a flashpoint between Greece and Turkey for decades, Greece supports Turkey's accession to the EU. Achillies Paparsenos, Press Counselor at the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C., says "Greece believes that a European Turkey following the principles of the EU will be good for Turkey and for stability in the region."
While all parties concerned insist that a Cyprus solution is not a formal requirement for Turkey to join the EU, there is an informal consensus that it would assist Turkey's path to membership. According to O. Faruk Logoglu, Turkey's ambassador to the U.S., "It's a fact that the EU says resolution of this problem would facilitate Turkey's accession, and failure to resolve the Cyprus problem would make it very difficult for Turkey's progress. So it's not a formal condition, but it's a realpolitik condition."
Formal conditions include standards in the matters of human rights, rule of law, democracy, and treatment of minorities, as spelled out by the Copenhagen European Council of 1993. To meet these standards, Turkey needs to grant more rights to Turkish citizens of Kurdish background, reduce military intervention in the government, and implement increased freedom of the press. The EU has also established economic criteria that require tax reforms, greater privatization, and reorganization of the social security system in Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, is making progress toward implementing reform. The death sentence has been abolished, and restrictions have been lifted on freedom of speech and Kurdish language rights. (Kurdish language broadcasts were banned for many years, and press coverage of Kurdish issues and other sensitive topics often resulted in criminal prosecution and imprisonment). "Turkey has moved ahead quite dramatically in fulfilling the political criteria," says Matthias Ruete, a senior official in the Enlargement Directorate of the EU Commission. "But it still has further to go. We know that there are a lot of things that are in the pipeline in Turkey, in terms of both legislation and implementation."
The negotiations for Turkish accession to the EU may start in December 2004, if all goes well. How much longer Turkey will have to wait after that remains to be seen, but analysts think it will not gain EU membership until at least 2010.
The View From Turkey
Despite concerns that radical Islamic elements in Turkey might oppose greater integration in Europe, some polls suggest that 70 to 80 percent of the Turkish public support their country's bid for membership.
Sabri Sayari, executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies and visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., points out: "Turkey is the only Muslim country that has tried hard to become a part of Europe. This is a story that goes back at least 100 years. And that's a very interesting and remarkable story. No other predominantly Muslim country has been as enthusiastic as Turkey about joining the EU."
Sayari attributes the Turks' eagerness to various factors. "This administration doesn't want to see a clash of civilizations between Europe and the Islamic world. It has strong roots in Turkey's Islamic movement but it also has a pro-Western orientation. It feels that if Turkey is left out of Europe, this may contribute to an increase in anti-Western attitudes in Turkey. In addition, the administration supports EU membership as a way to strengthen the country's human rights record and to lessen the role of the military in politics."
A Warm Welcome?
The European Council is the deciding body for a country's accession to the EU. It is made up of the heads of state of all the member countries. And while the council has been receptive toward Turkey's membership bid, it is another story among the public. "Public opinion in the different member states of the EU is relatively critical of Turkey's membership," Ruete says. And although it plays no role during negotiations, the national politicians have to decide on the ratification of the final treaty. Then public opinion becomes a factor."
Logoglu believes the opposition within the European public stems from both historical and contemporary reasons. "The Ottoman Turks ruled most of Europe for hundreds of years," he says. "So there is a lot of historical baggage in Europe about the Turks. In some ways, they still fear the Turks and Muslims.
"For contemporary reasons, many European people feel that Turkey is too different, too much of a different culture. And they think it will drain most of the resources of the EU since it's a poorer country. Some people think that the Turks would simply flood the European Union countries and there will be Turks everywhere."
While the EU expands its borders and seeks greater diversity, Turkey's eventual membership seems plausible. And perhaps the greatest benefit of its membership will be to bridge a gap between different cultures, religions, and civilizations.