The European Union is preparing to use its summit in Copenhagen this week open its doors to ten new members. But a demand by Turkey to be given a firm date by the EU to begin its own accession talks promises to rise to the top of the summit's agenda.
Turkey has always had a difficult relationship with the European Union. Its long-standing application to join the bloc has been on hold for years, mainly because the EU had serious concerns about Turkey's commitment to democracy, human rights, and civilian control of the armed forces.
Turkish-EU ties were frozen in 1997 after the EU turned down Turkey's request to become a candidate for membership. Two years later, pressure by the United States helped secure that candidacy, and Turkey now hopes that it can count again on Washington to lobby the Europeans on behalf of an ally, considered vital in any military campaign against Iraq.
The United States has been pushing hard for the European Union to, at least, grant Turkey a date to start its negotiations to enter the bloc.
Just last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz urged Europe to both open its doors to Turkey and engage it to help reach a political settlement on the divided island of Cyprus.
"It would be to the benefit, not only of Turkey and Europe, but to the entire world, including my country, if the December 12 EU summit in Copenhagen can succeed in advancing two important goals: a settlement in Cyprus and an agreement on a date to begin negotiations on Turkish membership in the EU."
The head of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arrived in Copenhagen from Washington Wednesday with an endorsement by President Bush of Turkey's hopes for a starting date for accession talks. Mr. Erdogan says he still believes the E.U. will give Turkey a date next year despite the negative signals coming from the union.
Earlier this week, most E.U. foreign ministers expressed support for a Franco-German proposal that Turkey be given an opening date for negotiations in mid-2005 as long as it meets EU criteria on human rights and democracy by the end of 2004.
Turkey has already rejected that date as being inadequate, saying it is prepared to wait until the end of 2003 but no longer.
But Turkish diplomats say privately that they are worried less by the starting date than by the review date proposed by the EU because, by that time, Cyprus, that is, the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia, will be a member of the union and would have the power to veto any Turkish progress.
President Bush Wednesday called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to push Turkey's case. But some EU officials, like External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, say such pressure from Washington amounts to interference in European affairs and could prove to be counter-productive.
"I think most of us have lost count of the number of times American officials have offered Turkey membership in the European Union," he said. "I sometimes think that, perhaps, we should offer Mexico membership of the United States."
At issue here is whether Europe really does want to open its doors to a populous country that is predominantly Muslim. The debate sharpened recently when former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing, who now heads a convention on Europe's future, pointedly referred to Turkey's different culture and said the country's admission would be the end of the E.U. That is a view shared not only by many politicians but also by many members of the public in European countries.
But some European leaders do accept that Turkey should be given a starting date, both to give hope to a strategically placed ally and to encourage democracy in other Muslim nations. They believe that the best hope is a so-called grand bargain, whereby Turkey would push the Turkish Cypriots into a peace deal with the Greek Cypriots and obtain its cherished date for negotiations in return.
Diplomats say United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded Mr. Erdogan to send Turkish Cypriot representatives to Copenhagen for last-ditch talks with their Greek Cypriot counterparts. They hope the two sides will sign a framework agreement for a settlement that will allow Cyprus to join the EU in mid-2004 as a single entity.
But that hope became dimmer after ailing Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Dentash said Wednesday that his administration would not sign any such accord in Copenhagen because it needs more time to negotiate.