In a historic move that could extend Europe’s borders to the edge of the volatile Middle East, the European Union recommended Wednesday setting mostly Muslim Turkey on a course for full membership in the prosperous 25-nation bloc.
Reflecting widespread misgivings, however, the 30-member EU executive commission set tough conditions to prevent Turkey from backtracking on sweeping democratic and human rights reforms.
“This is a qualified yes,” said European Commission President Romano Prodi. “Our position is a positive one, but also a prudent, cautious one.”
French President Jacques Chirac said talks with Turkey could last 10-15 years “at a minimum.”
Such caution reflected unease throughout a prosperous and mostly Christian continent about union with a poorer Muslim nation that could be a source of unwelcome migrants. Many Europeans recall the old Ottoman Empire, seen as a hostile power that once ruled swaths of Europe to the gates of Vienna, Austria, leaving a legacy of corruption in its wake.
Recommendation must be approved at summit
It is now up to the EU’s 25 leaders to approve the recommendation at a summit in December, paving the way for the start of entry talks as early as next year.
If that happens, as Ankara hopes, Turkey would not actually join the union until around 2015. The commission gave no deadline for a final accession treaty with Turkey.
Prodi said the EU could suspend or even halt membership negotiations over any serious and persistent failure to respect democracy or human rights.
“We need to take our time on this,” he said. “A lot still remains to be done.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan bristled at any suggestion that Turkey was not a shoo-in to join the EU, saying he would reject any outcome other than full and equal membership.
He also criticized Chirac for seeking a referendum on Turkish EU membership. Chirac has asked for an amendment to the French constitution that gives voters a say whenever the EU wants to take in a new member.
Erdogan said the move was unjust because none of the 10 EU members that joined the bloc in May had to win voter approval first.
“It is unfair and will destroy the motivation of Turkey to stay the course on economic and political reforms to get into the EU,” Erdogan said in Strasbourg, France.
Any reversal would “show disrespect to a country which has accelerated” economic and political reforms in recent years, he said.
Longtime aspirations to join EU
Turkey, which has had EU aspirations for more than 40 years, has joined every Western economic and political organization open to it, including the NATO alliance, and Europe’s top human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe.
Guenter Verheugen, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, said the EU could not deny Turkey’s bid this time around.
“The choice was very clear. Turkey was simply too good.... Progress was too good” to say no, he said. “We can trust Turkey that the country will continue ... improving the situation.”
In an effort to appease skeptics, the recommendation set rigid hurdles for Turkey to meet before starting talks. Turkey will have to meet minimal reform “benchmarks” in everything from food safety to setting cross-border banking fees.
Ankara may also face a contentious restriction on the number of workers it can send westward. The commission recommended a “safeguard clause” that could be invoked to restrict the number of Turkish migrants in times of economic difficulty.
Verheugen said opening negotiations with Turkey would not get Europe-wide backing if such an “emergency brake” were not included.
Sticking points: Immigration, economy, geography
Under EU rules, citizens from member countries have the right to travel, live and work freely in any of the member states. But many fear mass Turkish immigration if the country joins the EU. Restrictions on migrant workers were added when the 10 newest members — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta and the Czech Republic — signed a treaty last year.
Turkey also must have “a functioning market economy” before talks are opened, a condition that could present a significant hindrance. Turkey still lags far behind economically, with a per capita income of the equivalent of about $4,000, a fraction of the EU average.
Turkish membership also would bring Europe’s borders to Syria and Iraq — a fact that opponents say moves Europe too close to the unstable Middle East.
Many EU nations are wary of admitting Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 71 million people, into the EU fold. There is considerable opposition in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands — nations with sizable immigrant populations and right-wing parties keen to exploit immigration issues in electoral campaigns.
“The unthinkable is becoming reality. The largest member state of the EU will not even be a European country,” said EU lawmaker Philip Claeys, from Belgium’s far-right Flemish Bloc party.
Mainstream leaders have also expressed skepticism about allowing in a secular Muslim nation with a weak economy and a questionable human rights record, whose projected population would be the largest in the EU by 2025.
The opening of membership talks would be warmly welcomed in Washington, where successive presidents, including Bill Clinton and President Bush, have publicly called on the EU to absorb Turkey.
A key task for Turkey is to show it is serious about eradicating torture, which Ankara has outlawed but which continues nevertheless, according to human rights groups.
The report said improvements Turkey must make include freedom of the press, prison reform, improved treatment of non-Muslim minorities and Kurds, and curbing the influence of the military, which has repeatedly seized power in the last five decades.
The seeds of Turkish membership were sown in 1963 when the EU made Turkey an associate member. That status carried the prospect of future membership, but over the decades, European leaders put off a decision on whether Ankara should be allowed to join.
Not until 2002 — 41 years after making Turkey an associate member — did EU leaders say they would decide at the end of 2004 on whether to open entry talks.