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Opinion: Rejection of Turkey wouldn't be Europe's finest hour

EU membership looks unlikely for Turkey, with Herman van Rompuy at the helm.

Flag sellers wait for customers in the city of Kayseri, central Turkey, June 27, 2006. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

BOSTON — When the European Union selected Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy to be its first, full time president last week the reaction in many quarters was that “this was not Europe’s finest hour,” as the Financial Times put it. Nothing against van Rompuy, mind you, but after so many “years of tortured labor, the mountain brought forth a mouse.”

Not that the position has much power. The EU’s foreign minister-to-be, Britain’s Catherine  Ashton, will have more, but clearly there is a sense of disappointment among those who would like to see Europe “punch its weight.”

For Turkey, a country that has been standing at Europe’s door hoping to be let in for more than 20 years, there will be a special disappointment.

Five years ago, at a meeting of the Council of Europe, an organization to which Turkey has belonged since 1949, van Rompuy expressed the opinion that, “Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be a part of Europe.” He spoke of Europe’s fundamental Christian values that would be lost if such a large Muslim country were to be admitted. His views are consistent with those of Germany and France, but not Britain, which favors EU membership for Turkey.

Turkey has been a Council of Europe member since 1949, a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a member of NATO since 1952. It applied for formal membership in the European Union in 1987, but formal negotiations for its accession began only in 2005.

At that time I thought Turkey was on a glide path to membership. Europe would not begin formal negotiations if it were not serious, I thought, as Turkey had made change after change in its laws and behavior to accommodate Europe’s standards.

In the years since, I have lost faith that Europe will ever allow Turkey in, no matter how Turkey conforms to European norms. I have watched as Europe, time and time again, raised the bar to membership.

Turkish liberals have maintained that the journey was as important as the destination, and that the desire for membership kept Turkey honest and brought much needed reforms. But Turks now are becoming weary of working so hard to please Europeans, while Europeans, such as van Rompuy, make disparaging and disappointing comments.