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Europe's stake in Turkey

MORE THAN 100 years ago Czar Nicholas I of Russia dubbed Turkey "the sick man of Europe" because the ailing Ottoman Empire seemed at death's door. Today Turks say, "We may have been sick, but at least we were considered part of Europe."

On Dec. 17 the 25 members of the European Union will decide whether Turkey can formally begin the long process of joining their club -- and Europe is divided.

Austria's commissioner, Franz Fischler, for example, said that Turkey is "far more oriental than European." Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing said that admitting Turkey would be "the end of Europe." French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin asked: "Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?" And Frits Bolkestein of the Netherlands said that if Turkey joined the EU, the victory over the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683 would "have been in vain."

To be sure, other European leaders have been supportive, but even in the most secular of continents Christendom still harbors old-folk fears of the "Terrible Turk," as if his armies were still encamped on the Danube. My oldest friend on the continent of Europe told me in all seriousness recently that the reason the Americans favor Turkish entry into the EU is because they want Europe to be weak.

"Let's be clear about this," said Holland's foreign minister, Ben Bot, recently. "The member states decide," and the decision must be unanimous. Bot called upon the Turks, even at this late hour, to initiate and implement further reforms.

Not that Turkey hasn't been turning reform somersaults to suit the Europeans: overhauling its laws, abolishing the death penalty, improving human rights, and asserting civilian control over the military -- all of this by a nominally Islamist government. "It used to be the army that would boss us around, but now it is the EU," said Vuslat Dogan Sabanci, CEO of Istanbul's newspaper Hurriyet.

While it may be true that many Turks are tired of jumping over ever-higher bars to please the Europeans, others see the pressure to join Europe as advantageous to bringing badly needed reforms for Turkey's own sake. For them the journey to Europe -- which even if accession talks begin could still take a decade or more -- is as important as the arrival. "While American hard power is destroying Iraq," said professor and journalist Sahin Alpay, "European soft power is transforming Turkey."

And this can be only to the good of the world. A stable and secular Islamic country of some 71 million in the Middle East and bordering on the Turkic speaking peoples of Central Asia can be an invaluable strategic asset to the Western world -- a beacon of democracy and free markets and a bulwark against the rise of Islamic fanaticism. As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it to a group of visiting journalists here: "We believe that a Europe that will include Turkey will not be a Christian club but the only venue where civilizations meet through a historic compromise."

No doubt Europe is being asked to swallow a big pill. Turkey is poor and will probably surpass Germany in population during the next decade or two. Most of Turkey is in Asia, as critics like to point out, but Turkey has a bigger population living on the European side of the Bosphorus -- 8 million -- than 11 of the 25 countries already in the EU.

Yes, the dominant religion in Turkey is Islam. But since Kamel Ataturk wrenched Turkey into secularism 80 years ago, the separation of mosque and state has remained strong. Turks note with irony that France followed Turkey's lead in banning head scarves in state schools. And with some 15 million Muslims already living in EU countries, more than 3 million of them Turks, the union already has more Muslims in its midst than the populations of all but seven of its member states. The gates of Vienna have already been breached.

If the EU had remained the tidy grouping of six industrial countries in Western Europe, one could better sympathize with the contention that Turkey doesn't belong. But with the admission of former communist countries, as well as divided Cyprus and minuscule Malta, into the club, it would be grotesque to keep Turkey out.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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