As Turkey awaits Brussels' decision to open concrete talks on its membership bid, experts fear that the divisive debate on Ankara's entry has already thrown a pall on the bloc's enlargement euphoria.
The debate on Turkey's EU entry has often centered on religion
On October 6, the European Commission is expected to recommend that Ankara get the green light to open EU membership negotiations. The decision will be viewed as a victory in Turkey, which has been on a reform drive in past years to fulfill EU accession criteria.
But, Brussels' formal decision next week is not expected to silence the at times bitter and divisive debate within the EU on whether Turkey should be invited to join the bloc.
Turkish immigrants dressed in traditional costume during carnival in Cologne, Germany
The EU is expected to cite 2015 as the first realistic date at which Turkey could enter the 25-nation bloc. Both opponents and proponents of Ankara's membership bid are thus likely to dig in their heels for years to come and thrash out the pros and cons of the large Muslim-dominated nation joining the bloc.
But some fear that the debate on EU membership for Turkey is not just outdated, but also harmful.
Erhard Busek, coordinator of the Stability and Growth Pact for South-eastern Europe said ever since the decision of the EU summit in 2002, it's been clear that Turkey would get a full-fledged membership and not an alternative form of cooperation with the EU as skeptics are demanding.
"One can debate about Turkey. But, in reality, the issue has already been decided," Busek told Deutsche Welle. "The only problem is that the individual governments and leaders in the EU haven't explained the issue well in their home countries. And that could cause a number of difficulties," he said.
EU at the end of its tether
However, German EU parliamentarian and member of the conservative EVP, Elmar Brok, said he saw difficulties elsewhere.
Brok said the European Union was at the end of its tether after the last large wave of expansion -- where ten mainly former communist eastern European countries joined the bloc -- and the tough negotiations over a constitution. Consolidation is now on the agenda; the EU must focus on internal stabilization, Brok said.
"I don't want the current 25-member Union once again disintegrating into various categories," Brok said. "But rather, the constitution which we agreed upon in summer, should also have some substance. But it can only have that if the EU has internal negotiating capacity," he added. "It's of no use to allow the EU to just become bigger and along with it, internally weaker."
EU full up
Meglena Kuneva, Bulgarian Minister for European Affairs, right with European Commission President Romano Prodi and Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen
But it's already clear that EU expansion isn't going to stop at the entry of the ten eastern European nations. Bulgaria and Romania have already been promised entries by 2007.
According to Elmar Brok, the two countries differ from Turkey as far as membership goes. "In the case of Romania and Bulgaria, entry negotiations have almost been concluded. Here, if they satisfy entry criteria by 2007, the EU has to fulfill its promises of membership," Brok said. "But it also shows that we're full up. And that's why we need to apply the brakes here (in Turkey's case)."
At the latest, after Croatia's entry, the EU must ask itself whether it wants to expand further at all, Brok said. He added that in Turkey's case, one shouldn't make overhasty mistakes but rather take time and see whether both sides had done their homework in two to three years.
Leaving the past behind
But, even though Romania and Bulgaria's entry into the EU look like a done deal, the perception there is that enlargement euphoria in the EU has largely evaporated.
Maria Ligor of the Romanian Foreign Ministry said she reckoned that Brussels would pay more stringent attention to whether her country was fulfilling the enlargement criteria than has been the case with the current new members.
Ligor is clear, however, that Bucharest would have no fundamental doubts against Turkey's EU entry as long as the country met the necessary criteria. She said that negative emotions such as memories of the Ottoman Empire were a thing of the past.
"The relationship to Turkey has been strongly transformed. We work closely together with Turkey, especially in the south-eastern European region, in the Black Sea region," Ligor said. "What's important is to drive forward the democratization process in the Caucasus. The new relationship has pushed the past into the shadows."