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Turkey Is Knocking, but EU Is Hesitating

Times Staff Writer

Can a Turk be a European?

Europe will ask that centuries-old riddle again today, when Turkey is expected to take a big step in its troubled quest to join the European Union. If all goes according to plan, EU leaders will set a date for Turkey to begin membership talks, a prospect certain to intensify doubts that a Muslim nation can be embraced by a Europe anxious about the rise of Islam across the continent.

The historic negotiations could last 15 years. There is no guarantee of membership. A din of caveats and protests has already erupted over economic and human rights concerns. But, in the end, the question is identity: Are Turkey’s history, religion and borders compatible with the geographic and cultural landscape of Europe? And, perhaps more important, does a predominantly Christian Europe want them to be?

“No, it’s not a natural fit,” said Hans-Ulrich Klose, a Social Democrat and deputy chairman of the German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “It’s going to be very difficult. But we should give it a good, fair try. If it’s a success and Turkey turns European, it could be good for security regarding all our concerns from the Middle East.”

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Big-shouldered and chaotic Turkey wants to nudge itself into a continent that is perplexed about its own identity and future. The EU admitted 10 new, mostly East European members in May and is still awaiting approval of a contentious constitution. Economic problems and high unemployment across much of the continent are hurting the middle class and eroding the welfare state.

Some leading European officials contend that admitting a moderate Muslim democracy to the EU would calm the tremendous strain between East and West over terrorism and the war in Iraq. The belief is that Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, could help stifle Islamic fanaticism around the world and enhance Europe’s diplomatic leverage in Central Asia and the Middle East.

The clamor against Turkey, whose per capita gross domestic product is only 28% of the EU average, has energized right-wing political parties and much of the continent’s population. Turkey’s entry would mean the EU’s Muslim population would soar from 12 million to 81 million. Skeptics envision Europe opening itself to a flood of religious extremists and migrant workers, with minarets cluttering skylines from Madrid to Krakow.

Many Europeans, most notably the French, argue that admitting Turkey would threaten European secularism and tip the EU’s balance of power. Former French President Valery Giscard D’Estaing warned that Turkey’s accession would mark the end of Europe. Conservative German politician Edmund Stoiber has vowed to do everything he can to derail Turkey’s chances if elected chancellor in 2006.

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Writing in Le Figaro this week, Robert Badinter, a former justice minister in France’s Socialist Party, said of Turkey, “Ninety-five percent of the territory and 92% of the population are in Asia. We’ll have, we Europeans, common borders with Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. I am asking you: What justifies our common borders with these countries? What justifies that we’d get involved in the most dangerous areas of the world?”

Such sentiments have led to qualifications and demands that seem to daily raise the bar for Turkish membership.

Pressure is mounting on the Turkish government in Ankara to recognize its longtime enemy and EU member, Cyprus. France is pressing Turkey to acknowledge genocide in the killing and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. Some European politicians have hinted that membership talks would fail and Ankara would be granted a “privileged partnership” -- an idea that infuriates Turks and has led to calls that negotiations end only in full membership.

The European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution Wednesday urging the EU to open accession talks “without undue delay.” EU leaders meeting in Brussels are expected to inform Turkey today on a date for negotiations to begin. A formal announcement is set for Friday.

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“Enough is enough,” said Mehmet Ali Birand, a columnist, in Turkey’s leading Hurriyet daily. “EU officials may not be aware of this, but they are pushing the Turkish people. When our patience runs out, we will be out for revenge. The EU ambassadors are playing with fire.”

Since it first asked to be stitched into Europe in 1963, Turkey has grown accustomed to being treated like a guest invited for cocktails but not a seat at the dinner table. Ankara has urged Europe to better understand Turkey’s strategic importance and not push it toward an alliance with Russia and China. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Europe would lose an ideal counterpoint to terrorism if it rejects a country that has merged Islam and democracy.

Irritated that his nation is still perceived as a backwater of village women in head scarves and farmers in baggy pants, Erdogan told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, “No other country had to wait 41 years at the door of the European Union. We have done all that was demanded of us, and the Europeans are still hesitating. That can only be called discrimination.”

But no other country is Turkey, either.

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Once the seat of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey is 99.8% Muslim. Its borders stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the fringes of Mesopotamia. Its restless dream to join Europe was born early last century when Kemal Ataturk formed a secular government, banned the traditional fez and encouraged his people to enjoy the music of Beethoven and Mozart.

The military that has long guarded the country’s secularism from Islamic designs remains powerful but has retracted under pressure from the EU, leading to political stability and a stronger civilian government. Turkey’s desire to join Europe also has led to its abolishing the death penalty, reforming the courts and curbing torture and human rights abuses, especially against the Kurds in the southeast, where a war with separatists has grown largely quiet.

But significant problems exist. A poor farming country recovering from a recession, Turkey has huge debt. Its EU membership could cost the continent $40 billion a year. Europeans also are uneasy about Erdogan, who recently supported a failed legislative attempt to criminalize adultery. A former Islamist party member, Erdogan says he’s committed to separation of church and state, but German intelligence in 2001 described him as a religious hard-liner.

“I am slightly suspicious of the man,” said one senior European official, who asked not to be named.

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Europe’s doubts about Erdogan mirror the continent’s struggle with a burgeoning immigrant Muslim population it views as wanting to recast the Rights of Man in the image of the Koran. France has outlawed head scarves in schools. Germany has made it easier to deport militant imams. Recent extremist attacks, including the Madrid train bombings and the killing of a Dutch filmmaker, have increased suspicion of the continent’s Muslims.

Polls show that majorities in the EU’s most influential countries -- France and Germany -- are uneasy over Turkey. Sixty-seven percent of French voters and 55% of German voters are opposed to Turkish membership. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder face potential political backlashes for supporting Turkey. Countries most in favor of Turkey include Spain, where 65% of voters approve, and Italy, where 49% approve.

One need only visit Germany to understand the EU’s apprehension over Turkey. Germany’s 2.5 million Turks account for the largest such population in Europe. They arrived as guest workers more than 40 years ago and formed a parallel society that only recently has begun to integrate. Lack of assimilation, mainly because Germans expected Turks to leave, has created discouraging statistics: 45% of Turks in Berlin are unemployed and 30% drop out of high school.

Ozcan Mutlu, an ethnic Turk and Greens deputy in Berlin’s city parliament, said the EU would send an alarming message to immigrants if Turkey’s membership bid were rejected.

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“They keep talking about how Turkey is a foreign policy question, but it’s a question of interior European politics,” Mutlu said. “There are 3.5 million Turks in Europe. What kind of message do you send these people if you tell them, ‘No, you and Turkey are not part of us.’ My dream is that instead of Turks sitting on their luggage in Europe, they will be able to open their luggage, put their clothes in drawers and feel welcome.”

Such a notion is unsettling for a continent that in some ways is growing more nationalistic. Populist and right-wing parties in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Austria don’t want any more Muslim suitcases unpacked. This trend may merge with what some analysts see as a rekindling of European Christianity, which has been in decline for generations.

“There is widespread fear of immigration coming from Turkey,” said Klose, the German federal lawmaker. “This is a touch dynamic and could be misused in the public. Since Sept. 11 and the murder in the Netherlands, the atmosphere around the Turkish debate has changed.”

Chirac said the matter was full of opportunity and risk. “If Turkey subscribes to all our values, it is an extraordinary chance for Europe to strengthen and have a more important position in the world, regarding economy, moral values and peacekeeping,” he said. “If we reject ... we could create a situation that could be of confrontations.”

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Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris, Janet Stobart in London and Tracy Wilkinson in Ankara contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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The 25-member European Union is meeting to determine whether Turkey should be given the go-ahead to begin accession talks. Here’s the makeup of the EU today:

Number of nations: 25

Population: 455.8 million

Largest nation: Germany: 82.2 million

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Smallest nation: Malta: 397,000

Area: 1.5 million square miles

EU GDP: $11 trillion

U.S. GDP: $11 trillion

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Anticipated next members: Bulgaria, Romania in 2007

European Union members:

Austria

Belgium

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Britain

Cyprus

Czech Republic

Denmark

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Estonia

Finland

France

Germany

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Greece

Hungary

Ireland

Italy

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Latvia

Lithuania

Luxembourg

Malta

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The Netherlands

Poland

Portugal

Slovakia

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Slovenia

Spain

Sweden


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