Leading article: A prize slipping away

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Turkey's bid to enter the European Union received a double blow last week. First came the parking of talks on Ankara's membership after objections by Greece and Cyprus. And then there was the vote by the French Assembly to outlaw the denial of the Armenian genocide by the troops of the Ottoman Empire some 90 years ago.

EU foreign ministers met yesterday with their Turkish counterpart to repair some of the damage. But the real diplomatic crunch will come next month when a report is due from the EU's enlargement minister on Turkey's progress in implementing reforms since membership talks began a year ago. If the report criticises Ankara's refusal to open Turkish ports to Cypriot ships and planes, as expected, EU leaders at their next summit may decide to freeze entry negotiations entirely. Once frozen, they would be very hard to re-start.

Pessimism over future enlargement is widespread. At the weekend the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, gave the most downbeat official assessment yet of Turkey's chances of membership. He argued that it could be up to two decades before Turkey is in a position to join. In the past the official line has been that the process would take 15 years at most.

We learn that the French President, Jacques Chirac, has apologised to the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the provocatively timed vote on the Armenian genocide by French deputies hostile to Turkey's bid. And with the ruling party against the bill, it is highly unlikely to become law. But the damage has been largely done.

The French vote has played into the hands of Turkish nationalists who argue that Europe does not really want Turkey in its cosy club. Pro-European Turks are finding it increasingly difficult to argue that "concessions" over Cyprus, Kurdish rights, and stronger ties with Armenia are worth it. The Turkish government will now find it impossible to recognise Cyprus before elections next year, for fear of looking weak.

A great prize could be slipping away. It would be a great boost for Europe - ideologically and materially - if it were to incorporate a predominantly Muslim country within its borders. And in the meantime, Europe has a valuable opportunity to promote human rights, free speech and a liberal economy in a land that borders the Middle East. If Turkey is not politically engaged with Europe, none of this can take place.

The rejectionists, both in Europe and Turkey, are in the ascendancy. That spells trouble, not just for Turkey's ambitions, but for Europe's future as a progressive and inclusive political force.

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