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Tying the Turkey-E.U. Knot

Turkey has renewed its efforts to pursue full membership in the European Union. But most experts agree that it's accession bid will be long and arduous.

Since negotiations began in late 2005 over Turkey's application for full membership in the European Union, Ankara has implemented political, economic and legislative reforms to harmonize its policies with those of Brussels. But in September, the European Parliament criticized Turkey for moving too slowly on reforms regarding freedom of speech, minority rights and corruption. And in December, the European Union froze talks with Turkey in eight policy areas because of a dispute over the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The E.U. wants Turkey to open its ports and airports to Cyprus, while Ankara wants Europe to end trade restrictions against the Turkish Cypriot North.

Terms of Negotations

According to Joaquin Roy, Director of the European Union Center of Excellence at Florida International University and the University of Miami, Turkey has been trying to impose its own negotiating terms on E.U. accession talks, even though it cannot become a full member while it maintains a military presence on Cyprus.

“One of the most important, if not the most important obstacle for fast and instant membership of Turkey in the European Union is that Turkey has armed forces ‘staying’ [in] or ‘occupying’, whatever is the word you use, a member state of the European Union - - Cyprus. While this continues, there is absolutely no way that Turkey will become a member of the European Union because the rest of the countries of the European Union would not vote in favor [of it] and, of course, membership in the European Union is subject to the veto of only one member state," says Roy.

Some experts argue that the European Union broke its own rules that prohibit importing instability when it accepted Cyprus into its ranks in 2004. By doing so, it ensured that Turkey would not become a full member.

Turkish Reforms

Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Cyprus issue was raised to slow Turkey's E.U. accession.

“Here's the problem. Turkey's reforms have made the country a liberal democracy in such a short amount of time that the Europeans, when they wanted Turkey to pass all those liberalizing reforms - - and they thought it would take Turkey perhaps a decade to pass all these reforms - - are now caught somehow by surprise because Turkey is ready before the time the Europeans thought it would be ready. And I think the monkey wrench [i.e., obstacle] they have thrown in is that, ‘We're not quite ready for Turkey.’ So here you've come up with all those technical issues related to Cyprus and people voicing objections to a whole bunch of other things," says Cagaptay.

But other analysts see Turkey's reforms slowing down as more of its citizens become disillusioned with E.U. membership conditions. Joaquin Roy of the European Union Center of Excellence says Europeans are concerned about the pace of Turkish reforms.

"There has been a tremendous amount of improvement. However, some of the most spectacular decisions were recently made. The death penalty was abolished recently. And there are still some parts of legislation that, for example, give preeminence to the army in some sectors. And there are still some customs and laws that raise doubts about the legality of equal access and equality between men and women. So those are doubts that are still present in the European Union," says Roy.

Turkey has vowed to continue its reforms and to ensure that 2007 is not a lost year in Turkish-E.U. relations. Most analysts expect little progress in accession talks this year as Turkey gears up for general elections in November.

But Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the real problem is that the Europeans have not come to terms with the implications of embracing Turkey. He adds, “It's not that it's a Muslim country. It's not that it's a large country. It's the fact that it's a very large Muslim country with 72 million inhabitants. And most Europeans are not fully prepared for the idea of letting such a large Muslim country into the union because they are scared [of] the implications of this. And I think they're scared because of this ongoing problem of Europe's own failure to integrate its Muslims: The Arabs in France, the Indians and Pakistanis in England, the Moroccans is Spain and Belgium, and how this is having a negative effect on the way the Europeans are looking at Turkey's membership," according to Soner Cagaptay.

The EU and Muslims

The question, many experts say, is whether the European Union will look at Turkey's Muslims as European citizens or as religious believers who might infringe on the E.U.’s secular policies. The implications of absorbing such a large Muslim population is something Europe has to figure out before bringing in Turkey, says Kirsty Hughes of the Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based research institute.

"I don't think the E.U. is ready to embrace Turkey today. But then Turkey, if it were to join the union, probably wouldn't come in until about 2015. And by then, the E.U., which is rather a union on the defensive - - it's worried about immigration, it looks at Turkey and sees that it's a poor country, it's got a big population, there's certainly some Islamophobia there - - the E.U. is frankly in a muddle these days. And I think it's really for Turkey to keep talking and to see if in the next decade, the union can come out of its current insecurity and muddle and welcome Turkey," says Hughes.

Despite the bumpy ride, most experts agree that both sides will reap enormous strategic and economic benefits if Turkey completes its long journey of accession to the European Union. That, however, could hinge on the outcome of Turkey's November general elections, in which most observers expect the ruling party to be reelected, but with a strong challenge from nationalists eager to exploit voter disillusion with the E.U.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.