The European Union is approaching a moment of truth on the sensitive issue of whether it should give Turkey a date to begin negotiations aimed at eventual Turkish membership in the bloc. The predominantly Muslim country's efforts to join the EU have set off a debate within Europe on whether Turkey is really a European nation and qualified to become a member of what, until now, has been a Christian club.
Turkey's new government is racing against time to push through radical human rights reforms by December 12, in the hope of winning a date to begin EU membership talks.
That is the day an EU summit in Copenhagen is expected to announce that accession negotiations with 10 Eastern European and Mediterranean countries have been wrapped up, thus paving the way for them to join the bloc by 2004.
But what to do about Turkey remains a dilemma for EU members.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of Turkey's new ruling party, toured EU capitals last month, in an effort to press his country's case for membership. But, despite laws enacted earlier this year that abolish the death penalty in peacetime and give cultural rights to the Kurdish minority, EU leaders told him that Turkey still has to do more to satisfy the bloc's human rights criteria.
The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Gul has gone into high gear in an effort to meet that challenge, drawing up legislation in the last week that would make it easier to prosecute police for torture, which the EU regards as one of the main obstacles to Turkish membership. The legislative package would also make it harder to ban political parties, and allow some political prisoners to have their cases retried.
The government has also lifted a 15-year-old state of emergency in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
Although it still insists it wants to see implementation of the legislation before it gives Turkey the green light to begin negotiations, diplomats in Brussels say the EU is inching toward granting Turkey a conditional date for opening negotiations.
Polls in Turkey show that 70 percent of the country's citizens favor EU membership. Sami Kohen, a political columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet, said Turks know that it may take them at least 10 years to join the club, but that all they want now is a date to begin accession talks.
"Perhaps the date will not be announced, but a kind of rendezvous may be announced where, for instance, the date could more explicitly be given sometime next year," he said.
Mr. Kohen said the EU's Big Five - Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain - all appear to support giving Turkey some kind of positive signal. "They seem to be very favorable now to the idea that there should be some kind of a decision that would satisfy Turkey, or that would not alienate Turkey," he said.
That view is shared by analyst Heather Grabbe at London's Center for European Reform. Ms. Grabbe said the EU recognizes that it must do something to reward the progress Turkey has made over the past few months in improving its human rights situation. "The question is whether to go for what they call a rendezvous clause, or to go for an actual date starting negotiations. Now, the rendezvous clause would basically be an agreement to meet again in 2003, possibly early 2004, and discuss Turkey's progress, and to set a date then. So, that would be sort of a date for a date. But there are other people in the EU who say we should move faster, and we should actually set a date for Turkey to start negotiations, a tentative date, one that's conditional on Turkey meeting the political conditions, but one which at least gives Turkey something to aim for," she said.
In spite of what Ms. Grabbe sees as a desire to accommodate Turkey's aspirations for EU membership, there are those within the Union who think it should not join at all.
Former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing, who heads a convention that is drafting an EU constitution, declared last month that Turkey is neither geographically nor culturally European, and that its accession would mean the end of the European Union.
Analyst Heather Grabbe said Mr. Giscard struck at the heart of a perception among much of the European public that Turkey is an outsider. "Giscard is reflecting the views of many that, although Turkey might meet all of the formal conditions for joining, it's just too different from the rest of the EU to join. And that's because of its geographical location. It's because its population is predominantly Muslim. It's also because Turkey has a large agricultural sector. And it's a big country. It's got a population of 69 million people, and it's a young population, that's growing fast, so it might overtake Germany in size before it actually comes into the Union. So, all of those questions are uppermost in people's minds, even though the EU's formal position is that Turkey simply has to be a democracy and a market economy in order to join," she said.
Mr. Giscard's remarks spurred a lively debate about the identity and final frontiers of Europe, and prompted Romano Prodi, the head of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, to argue that countries like Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Egypt and Morocco should never join the bloc, but be offered instead a special relationship with the Union.
But in Turkey's case, EU officials acknowledge that a decision to allow it to join the bloc has already been made in principle. The only question is when accession talks will start, and that, they say, depends on how fast the Turkish government meets EU requirements.