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EU membership could help stabilize Turkey

EVEN AS the United States struggles with stabilizing Iraq, a critical decision is being made in Europe with great implications for the stability of the Middle East -- whether or not to offer Turkey a timetable for membership in the European Union. The decision will transform Turkey's politics or undermine its recent progress. The recent catastrophic terrorist bombings in Istanbul have underlined both Turkey's strategic importance and the need to stabilize this vital frontline ally.

If the EU were to begin negotiations with Turkey, actual membership might still be years away. But just the firm possibility of EU membership is likely to alter the direction of Turkey's politics.

Consider what the process has done for other EU applicants. In the wake of a currency crisis, the citizens of the Czech Republic in 1998 elected a legislature in which no party could form a majority. They thus inadvertently brought their country's political and economic reforms to a near-standstill.

Many feared that the Czech Republic was coming unglued, drifting toward the dysfunction of Albania or Russia. But, unlike those countries, the Czech Republic was on a timetable for EU membership. When its reforms stalled, the EU unleashed a torrent of criticism. The unstable Czech minority government, determined to get into Europe, methodically reviewed the EU criticisms and sketched out legislation that would remedy the situation.

And then, remarkably, the Czech opposition -- resisting the temptation to score political points -- joined the government in passing the reforms at a breakneck pace. The timetable was back on track and foreign investment into the country doubled between 1998 and 2000.

So it went for Hungary. In the 1990s, government overspending pushed Hungary's external debt to crisis levels. The country, led by a prime minister who had been a Communist, was unrepentant. But in the face of EU criticism, the government suddenly slashed state spending, devalued the currency, cleaned up the banks, and controlled inflation and the debt. These were not easy choices. But Hungary's government more or less stayed the course.

The goal of EU membership saved Slovakia's democracy. In the mid-'90s, Slovakia appeared to be slipping toward the authoritarian politics that had gripped the Ukraine -- or worse. The EU singled out Slovakia among the 10 Eastern European applicants as the only country to have failed to meet the political criteria for EU entry.

Slovakia's opposition was propelled into action. Rallying behind the EU report, the fragmented opposition quickly unified. Some 70 percent of Slovakia's population supported EU entry and voted for the opposition in the 1998 elections. The new government moved swiftly to implement the EU's demands. An independent judiciary was established. The rights of ethnic Hungarians and Gypsies were protected. The secret service was brought under strict control. The constitution was amended to clarify and strengthen checks and balances.

The possibility of EU membership united the political and economic elites in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia behind a common goal; a goal that both stabilized and enriched their countries. Leading politicians and businesspeople wanted membership in Europe. But to get there, they needed to stay on the EU timetable and implement the Acquis Communautaire -- more than 80,000 pages of the laws, standards, and norms that are in force around the EU.

The Turks have, to some extent, recently followed a similar path. In the past year, previously unthinkable reforms have been passed -- allowing broadcasts in the Kurdish language and reducing the political role of the military. But Europe has not been helpful. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, author of the draft EU constitution, for example, notably declared that admitting a country such as Turkey "would be the end of Europe."

Yet the European Union has yet to take a formal decision on future Turkish membership. A negative decision would undermine the progress already made. A positive decision would unite the country's elites to more positive and determined action.

Turkish reforms would strengthen its economy and its political stability. EU membership would indicate its willingness to accept Muslims into the "club" -- thus helping to stabilize the Middle East.

The United States should do what it can to encourage the EU to decide in Turkey's favor. This means leaning on both Turkey and Greece over the Cyprus issue; on Turkey to implement further reforms; and on the EU, not to bend its rules for Turkish membership, but to offer Turkey a timetable for admission and then enforce the rules with full rigor. Turkey's business and political leaders are likely to respond to the incentive of European Union membership by transforming their country.

Sam Wilkin and Marvin Zonis are authors (with Dan Lefkovitz) of "The Kimchi Matters: Global Business and Local Politics in a Crisis-Driven World."

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