EU leaders will be trying to do the impossible tonight when they meet for a summit dinner expected to be entirely devoted to the issue of Turkey. Officials say the search is on for a formula that will satisfy all member states and still be acceptable to Turkey.
European public opinion is a key consideration. Polls show that majorities in many nations do not support Turkish entry.
In France, President Jacques Chirac favors Turkish membership, but has promised a leery French public that a referendum will be called on the issue, if needed. Chirac reiterated his position in an interview with French television yesterday. He said he believes talks with Ankara will likely begin next year and that the accession process will take 10 to 15 years.
Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, said yesterday that Turkey has met the EU's so-called Copenhagen political entry criteria and expects the bloc's leaders to stick to their earlier promises that that is enough:
"We believe that Turkey has completed its obligations. For that reason, our expectations are legal and right. We hope that EU leaders will behave with a great vision, by remembering their previous words and signatures, and they will set a date for the start of full membership negotiations in 2005," Gul said.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this week that he would reject any EU offer that contains "unacceptable issues," such as any mention of a privileged partnership. Officials in Brussels suggest a compromise wording may emerge that would say that talks will be "open-ended" and that they will lead to the "anchoring" of Turkey in European structures.
The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, yesterday used an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to call on member states to stick to the relatively noncontroversial assessment offered by the commission in October.
"The main message in the [European] Commission's assessment is that Turkey has sufficiently fulfilled the Copenhagen political criteria and that accession negotiations should now be opened. We consider this recommendation, which was very carefully prepared, to be well-balanced and a good basis for a decision by the Council [the EU summit]," Barroso said.
Barroso's comment subtly refers to the key argument made by Germany and other EU member states who favor Turkish membership -- that is, that any alienation of Turkey could lead to a reversal of recent democratic reforms.
He praised Turkey's continuing efforts to align its legislation with EU standards. "Turkey has made further progress in the last weeks. It has adopted five of the six pieces of legislation signaled by the commission in its report," he said. "The sixth law, on the execution of sentences, is pending before its parliament."
Turkish lawmakers approved the new sentencing law on 13 December.
Barroso also said the European Commission would like the summit to issue a clear date for the start of Turkey's accession talks. "It is now time for the European Council to honor its commitment to Turkey and announce the opening of accession negotiations," he said. "A clear date should be indicated."
Although some member states still seem to oppose giving Turkey a date, it is increasingly likely the summit will opt for a deadline for talks in late 2005. The delay is thought to be sufficient to ward off any negative effects the decision might have on attempts by countries such as France to ratify the new EU constitution next year.
Turkey has made it clear it regards a fixed date as an essential element of the deal.
Although Cyprus still argues that Turkey must recognize its Greek community government before talks can begin, it is thought likely it will accept a compromise amounting to de facto -- as opposed to full and formal de jure -- recognition.
Under the compromise, Turkey would extend its current association treaty with the EU -- known as the Ankara agreement -- to all new member states. The gesture is made easier for Turkey by the fact that the agreement currently covers only nine of the 25 EU member states, as it has not been updated since the first round of EU enlargement in the early 1970s.