Oct 3 marked the fifth anniversary of the launch of formal negotiation on Turkish accession to the European Union. The talks have not made much headway despite Turkey's compliance with EU requirements.
Turkey blames the delay on political intrigues. Whenever Turkey marks progress, the goalpost is advanced "in a way that has never been experienced by a candidate country," in the words of Ankara's chief EU negotiator, Egremin Bagis. EU circles accuse Turkey of procrastination in the introduction of major legal, judicial and governance reforms to enable itself to conform to EU standards.
Turkey is a secular but overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Since 9/11 there has been a strong undercurrent of anti-Islamic feelings in Europe, particularly in France, Germany and Holland. Turkey's relatively low economic progress and poor social indices have also been a cause for concern. Though Turkey is the world's 10th largest economy, 18 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line and 33 per cent of its work force is engaged in agriculture. It is feared that Turkey's entry into the EU will see a huge migration of cheap labour to the developed member-countries of the European Union.
However, the truth is that the prospect of Turkey – a Muslim-majority nation of 72 million people – joining a Christian club is anathema to the majority of EU members.
German chancellor Angela Merkel launched a high-profile campaign against Turkey's entry as a full member and instead suggested a "privileged partnership." Ms Merkel – whose country hosts about 2.5 million Turks as "guest workers," the largest member of Turk expatriates in any country – explained her position more bluntly in a letter to EU leaders last month. "We are firmly convinced that Turkey's membership would overtax the EU economically and socially and endanger the process of European integration," she wrote.
There is widespread concern in many quarters in Europe over the policies being pursued by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Until now Turkey had played a balancing role in relations between the Muslim-majority countries and the West. But Turkey's strong reaction to Israel's killing of eight Turks on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara leading the Gaza aid flotilla in May has further antagonised the European right. The ninth victim to die in the attempt to break the siege of Gaza was a 19-year-old American citizen of Turkish extraction.
Turkey's increasing support for the Palestinians and its friendly overtures towards Syria and Sudan have raised many eyebrows in the West. State visits by Sudanese president Hassan al Bashir and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Ankara have further deepened mistrust.
The EU is faced with a critical dilemma: if Turkey's membership-application is rejected, it is likely to align itself more closely with Muslim-majority countries. Even continuing delay in the grant of membership could provoke a crisis.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul argues that "at a time when people are talking about a clash of civilisations, Turkey is the natural bridge between civilisations. All we are trying to do is bring Islam and the West closer together."
European unease at the failure of its 15 million Muslims to integrate into European culture and lingering perceptions that Islam is a violent religion are factors which will determine the fate of the negotiations. Europe, despite all its liberal and secular credentials, will not let EU's essentially Christian character be diluted by the infusion of a vibrant and dynamic Muslim population of 70 million into European society.
The negotiating framework is an open-ended process. It holds no guarantee that the outcome would be membership.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: m.tayyab.siddiqui @gmail.com