Leading article: The EU must not shut the door on Turkish membership

Ankara is not yet ready, but the benefits of such a union would be great

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Barack Obama yesterday wrote in the visitors' book at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of his hope to strengthen relations between Turkey and America. But, judging by Mr Obama's speech the previous day, what the US President wants just as much is a strengthening of relations between Turkey and the European Union. The second wish is, by some distance, the more controversial.

Mr Obama's unambiguous expression of support for Turkey's bid for EU membership in Prague on Sunday did not go down well in Paris or Berlin. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, were quick to pour cold water on the idea that this predominantly Muslim nation of some 80 million citizens is destined to enter the European family.

It was unwise for President Obama, as an outsider, to wade into such rough waters. And Washington cannot easily gloss over the fact that Turkey has made little progress towards fulfilling the criteria of entry since the EU agreed to open accession talks with Ankara five years ago.

It is true that Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has tried to inject some life into the process in recent months, travelling to Brussels for talks with the EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and appointing a close aide to be full-time negotiator on accession.

But the reforms Ankara needs to enact to prepare Turkey for EU membership remain on the shelf. The influence of the military within Turkey's political institutions is still strong. Prosecutions against those deemed to have "insulted Turkishness" continue to be brought. And Ankara refuses to open Turkey's ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus.

There are doubts about the ruling AKP party too. The Turkish prime minister's objections in recent days to the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the next secretary general of Nato send an unsettling message about Ankara's willingness to play politics with religion. The Danish prime minister's fault in the eyes of Mr Erdogan was his failure to be suitably condemnatory of the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by some of his country's newspapers in 2006. Turkey's need to fall back on funding from the International Monetary Fund raises concerns about the ability of the EU to absorb such a potentially unstable new economic partner too.

And yet Mr Obama was right to emphasise the desirability, in principle, of Turkey entering the European family. Turkish membership would be a tremendous boost for relations between Europe and the Muslim world. At a stroke, the EU would be transformed from looking like a white, Christian club, to an alliance of free-trading democracies.

And the influence of the mostly moderate Muslims of Turkey might even help to counteract the spread of separatist Islamism in the likes of Britain and the Netherlands. Nor should we forget that the lure of membership gives Europe great scope to push for reform within Turkey, even if the results so far have been less than many hoped for. The process is almost as valuable as the result.

President Obama might have been a little indelicate in throwing Washington's full backing behind Ankara's EU bid, but we should be in no doubt about one thing: it is not in the interests of a single European to see the door slammed in Turkey's face.

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