This time the stakes are higher than ever. A new round of enlargement negotiations is about to begin, and once again Turkey's number has not come up; not in the first group of six selected candidates, nor even in the second group of five Eastern European countries who have been promised talks later. That alone was galling enough. Adding insult to injury however, the number of Cyprus did come up. No wonder the Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz has been in London warning Tony Blair that this was a "decisive moment" in his country's relations with Europe. No more "third rate treatment"; Turkey wanted its own firm undertakings - or else. Such is the mess that the EU leaders are having second thoughts about a dinner invitation extended to Mr Yilmaz after the summit. Why dine together if you have nothing to talk about?
Which brings to mind the celebrated definition of a diplomat as opposed to a lady: When a diplomat says yes he means maybe, when he says maybe he means no, and if he says no he ain't no diplomat (for the definition of the lady, reverse "Yes" and "No" throughout). Well, that is more or less the diplomatic dance the EU has been leading Turkey for decades. Indeed, it was back in 1963 that Turkey first concluded an association agreement with the then European Economic Community, the same year General de Gaulle delivered his first Non to British membership (but then the General never was a diplomat).
Talk to European officials in private and they say there's absolutely no prospect of Turkey joining in the foreseeable future. But that's not quite how it's come out in diplomatese. The goal now is "rapprochement". Turkey, it is said, is subject to the same conditions as every one else, and the country "remains on track". But on track to what, and when? Clearly a new gambit was required, and the diplomats duly produced one. Assuming approval in Luxembourg, it will be called the European Conference. It will consist of regular summit meetings of the 15 current EU members, the 11 aspirants, and Turkey - with the undeclared but primary purpose of keeping the Turks quiet. Unfortunately, without a guarantee that it will be admitted as a future candidate, Ankara says it is not interested.
In short, the diplomats may have outsmarted themselves. For with a little more plainspeaking earlier, the contortions would probably not have been necessary. The truth is that Turkey, for all its Westernisation, is still an impossible mouthful for the European Union to swallow. The problem is not so much its economy (bad, but little worse than some of the EU's accepted suitors from Eastern Europe) or even the fact that it is 98 per cent Muslim - but with its political and human rights record.
Essentially, arguments in favour of an early start to entry negotiations are all negative arguments. Why, it is asked, does Turkey's hour never come, while Estonia and Slovenia - who 10 years ago were not even sovereign countries - are accepted at the first time of asking? Rejection, it is said, will virtually remove any chance of resolving the Cyprus dispute. More serious still, if Europe spurns it anew, this strategically vital Nato country may turn its back on the West in favour of the Islamic world. This in turn, it is argued, would weaken its fragile democracy and offer a fresh opening for theocratic Islam: only six months ago, after all, the Islamic-leaning government of Necmettin Erbakan was eased out, under intense pressure from the Turkish military.
To deal with those points in order. Underlying the first of them is the age-old question of whether Turkey is a part of Europe. To which the answer is: less so than 150 years ago, when the country was an integral part of the European balance of power. Half of Turkey's trade may be with the EU. But Slovenia and Estonia are geographically far closer to the continent's fading, but not entirely vanished, East-West fault line. Turkey is a large Muslim country on its south-eastern fringe.
Second, Cyprus. Yes, reknitting the divided island will not get any easier, with Greece firmly inside the EU and Turkey again knocking on a locked door. And, assuming the summit endorses the Commission's proposals, Europe has done itself no favours with its weird decision to open entry negotiations with Cyprus - i.e. the internationally recognised Greek half of the island - in the teeth of understandable and bitter Turkish protest. But that begs the question of whether a Cypriot "solution" along conventional lines is possible. Diplomats still chase the chimera of a bi-zonal federation of the Greek and Turkish parts. After 23 years of fruitless search, however, the most realistic solution may be to turn de facto partition into de jure partition.
Finally, the political future of Turkey itself. Is it really the proper job of the EU to take in new members to save them from themselves? And is it really certain that the mere promise of EU membership would trump the appeal of Islamicism, or that the lack of such a promise would alienate Turkey from the West, or in the worst of cases provoke it into walking out of Nato.
That brings us to the strongest obstacles to Turkish membership - the political power of the armed forces - demonstrated again in the ousting of Mr Erbakan, and at basic odds with the the civilian, democratic heritage of the EU - and a dismal record of human rights abuses against Kurdish autonomists in Eastern Turkey. These are matters that Turkey's politicians alone can decide. In the meantime good friendship and military alliance with Turkey is one thing. EU membership, for the time being, is another. If only the diplomats had said so before.Reuse content