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Europe

Opinion: Tightrope Act Without a Net

Berlin is on the right track in its support of Turkish EU membership. Failure to allow Turkey to join the bloc could result in tragedy -- and not only for the Turks.

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It was smooth sailing for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder when he told his Turkish hosts that Germany supports the country's desire to become a full member of the European Union. For his part, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that his country was determined to continue reforms and to implement the Copenhagen criteria, the guidelines for EU membership.

Only a week earlier Schröder's Christian Democratic adversary Angela Merkel had enraged Erdogan and the Turkish public: The country should forget the desire it expressed to join the EU in a 1963 association agreement and the 1987 application for EU accession and instead agree to a "privileged partnership," she said.

A 40-year-old promise

After the succession of hot and cold showers, the Turkish public's sympathies obviously belonged to Social Democrat Schröder. His Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, had also praised Turkey recently. Schröder pledged to the government in Ankara and the German-Turkish business community in Istanbul that a departure from the 40-year-old promise was out of the question.

The red-green government in Berlin even goes a step further: It believes that the solution to the Cyprus conflict -- which was made easier by Ankara -- should also be recognized as an additional Turkish achievement. After all, resolution of the historic Turkish-Greek dispute over the Mediterranean island, that will presumably join the EU as a reunited republic on May 1, has nothing to do with the Copenhagen criteria.

The European Commission must still decide whether Turkey has fulfilled expectations in strengthening democracy and observance of human rights as well as economic development. Then, in December, it will (or will not) give the green light for talks on joining the bloc.

Accession talks boost

Ankara knows that the EU aims to complete, rather than eventually abort, accession talks once they are initiated. Erdogan has also referred to the psychological signals that starting talks would give off; They would increase Turkey's credit-worthiness and credibility to such a degree that foreign investments would pour into the country and boost the reform zeal.

The two sides are concerned with more than just the mutual economic advantages of Turkey joining the EU: A country with a Moslem population and a functioning pluralistic democratic system oriented on European values and norms would strengthen the region's stability. Furthermore, accepting Turkey would be an example for the Islamic world, which has been anxiously waiting for decades to see if the Turkish attempt will succeed.

Things are looking fine. Turkey has team Schröder/Fischer on its side. Merkel is against it, but polls show that in both Germany and Turkey the majority supports bringing Turkey into the EU.

No "plan B"

But caution is advised. There's no alternative plan in case the European Commission doesn't satisfy expectations and, consequently, a date for accession talks can't be set. What will happen if the result is negative?

The EU and Turkey are performing a political and diplomatic tightrope walk without a net. In Europe, the opponents of Turkey's accession to the EU are lurking, and in Turkey the nationalistic and religiously-motivated hawks are also waiting for the chance to attack. In case the two sides fall, Turkey's aim to join the EU would become a mere utopia; the reforms that have been started would appear a farce.

The Erdogan government's survival chances would be minimal, despite many positive signs, such as the lowest yearly inflation rate in 25 years -- currently at 18 percent. Europe's influence on developments in Turkey would decline dramatically. That would, in turn, imperil the NATO country's accordance with Europe's interests in crisis situations -- such as the recent Iraq conflict.

Turkey has earned the chance to develop into a country capable of joining the bloc with the help of Europe and, above all, with the help of Germany. Europe should take advantage of the chance to prove that other religions and cultures are capable of contributing to the consolidation of world peace. Besides Turkey, hardly any other country is capable of providing such proof.

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