Europe would be foolish to spurn the advances of the Turks once again

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The Beatles were in the charts and John F Kennedy in the White House when Turkey first sought admission to the Common Market. In the four decades that have since elapsed, the door to the club has opened to 19 other states, but has remained firmly shut to the Turks. Yesterday, their membership of the European Union finally became a realistic, albeit still distant, prospect.

The recommendation from the European Commission that accession negotiations should begin was, as expected, flanked with caveats and conditions. Yet it is an overdue recognition of the impressive changes Turkey has undergone to turn itself into a modern participatory democracy. The effort to qualify for membership has prompted profound internal change; in effect, a silent revolution. Turkey's reward was to be told, belatedly, that it "sufficiently" fulfils the political criteria for EU membership talks to begin.

EU leaders will meet on 17 December to accept or reject the recommendation. They ought to base that decision on the Commission's admirably objective assessment. Regrettably the debate is already charged with unhelpful emotion and irrational fear. The official position over the years has been that if Turkey ever met the criteria, a date for negotiations would be forthcoming. Now that Turkey is close to passing the tests, the Islamophobic nature of some of the objections have emerged into the open. Hence the recent outbursts about Europe's "culture and civilisation" being under threat.

Some concerns are genuine. Although uniquely secular in the Muslim world, Turkey is not yet a beacon of democracy. The Ankara government demonstrated worrying naivety in imagining that an absurd law to criminalise adultery would not damage its membership hopes. Prisoners are still being tortured in Turkish jails, while there is much that needs to be done to improve the condition of women, to curb the power of the military, ensure religious freedom and address the human rights violations endured by the Kurdish community. There are justified concerns also that Turkey's size and the acute poverty of some of its regions could shipwreck the Union's economic success.

The Commission has done well to address these objections and to list the steps Turkey must yet take if it is to overcome them. It has stipulated that negotiations can start without anyone committing to a date for their conclusion or even their eventual success. Above all, talks can be suspended if the human rights situation deteriorates or Turkey's political progress is reversed.

Negotiations are expected to last up to 15 years, and even this might, possibly, not be enough time to iron out all the difficulties. What matters is not so much a date for Turkey's actual admission, but the process of getting there, the linking of Turkey's transformation to that goal in the future.

Supporters of Turkey's admission must also recognise that it will be an immense challenge for the EU to absorb a vast, economically backward country of 70 million people, and remain manageable. But what is at stake is an immense prize. The existing EU will gain a young workforce, a huge market and an army that, for all its overbearing influence in Turkey, is big enough to make a common European foreign and security policy a reality. Most crucially, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, this is an opportunity for the West to embrace the Muslim world and for individual EU states to bridge divisions with their own Muslim communities.

Finally, we have a clear verdict on Turkey's suitability for entry. This issue, ducked and put off for so long, must be resolved. Turkey has demonstrated its desire to join, and the European Union has a moral duty to respond by giving Ankara an early date for negotiations. The Turks must not be spurned again. If they are, the signal it would send the wider Muslim world could have immeasurably damaging consequences for the entire globe.