The courtship seemed to be going so well. Last month, Turkey rolled out the red carpet for the European Union's outgoing Commissioner for Enlargement, Günter Verheugen, who was on his final swing through the country before his Oct. 6 recommendation on whether Turkey should be invited to start E.U. membership talks. Verheugen seemed to be enjoying his trip immensely: he feasted on stuffed vine leaves and pastry filled with sheep's cheese in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. He tapped his feet to Kurdish folk dances, met with Christian leaders in Istanbul, and accepted a specially made bracelet: it had 26 glass beads one for each of the 25 E.U. member states, plus Turkey. Verheugen's pink cheeks beamed from the front page of every newspaper, while posters proclaimed: citizen verheugen! welcome to greater europe!
Nothing spoiled the fun not an attack by Kurdish militants on a nearby police outpost during his stay, nor even a last-minute hiccup over a Turkish measure that would have criminalized adultery. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who at first supported the adultery proposal to appease conservative allies, agreed to drop it, and last week pushed a 700-page package of penal-code reforms through parliament. "We have worked hard and we have done our homework," a tight-lipped Erdogan told reporters in Brussels. "There is no reason now not to receive a positive answer" from the E.U.
Well, almost none. The prospect of a thumbs-up from Verheugen this week his recommendation will be voted on by E.U. government leaders at a summit on Dec. 17 has focused the minds and unstopped the pens of critics around Europe. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican's conservative theologian, warned that admitting Muslim Turkey to the E.U. would threaten the Continent's "cultural richness." French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin pointedly asked in the Wall Street Journal: "Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?" Austrian E.U. Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler opined that Turkey was culturally "oriental," geographically "Asian" and that accession would open "a geostrategic Pandora's box." Frits Bolkestein, the Dutch E.U. Commissioner for the Internal Market, said that admitting Turkey could mean that the historic defeat of Ottoman armies at the gates of Vienna in 1683 "would have been in vain."
It's not clear what all this sound and fury really signifies. Technically, the E.U. has already agreed to begin talks with Turkey "without delay" if the European Commission finds that it has met the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, the set of political, economic and legal standards spelled out in the Danish capital in June 1993. Verheugen has already indicated there are "no more obstacles" to talks getting started, though his report is expected to contain a "yes, but ..." clause that would allow the E.U. to keep pressure on Turkey to press on with reforms once talks begin. A last-minute public revolt could, theoretically, produce a veto in December; Turkish officials are most worried about France and Austria. But French President Jacques Chirac says he still backs talks and Austria, according to diplomats, is not likely to stand alone. Rejection now, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told TIME, would seriously damage Europe's credibility and "fuel hostility toward Europe across the Islamic world." Still, the dire warnings have stoked disenchantment in Western Europe and forced Turks to explain themselves again. "We are not talking about being full members now," said Gul. "We are just talking about negotiations. And these will take time. We are realistic. It will take years."
The Turks, in any case, have accomplished plenty already. A full 40 years after applying for E.U. membership, the ruling party in Ankara has passed more than 40 laws and over 300 articles to bring Turkish legislation and government structures in line with European norms. The death penalty has been abolished, press restrictions have been lifted, and the overweening power of the country's military has been at least partly ratcheted back a civilian now heads the country's powerful National Security Council. The government has tightened fiscal policy, reformed banking laws and helped bring inflation near 10%. While Turkish poverty remains a worry, an impact assessment published last week by the European Commission found that both Turkey and the E.U. stood to gain economically from accession.
Ironically, the failed adultery amendment was part of a reform package that has boosted women's rights, recognizing them as joint heads of households and splitting couples' assets equally after a divorce. Even Nebahat Akkoc, head of the leading women's center Ka-Mer (and a TIME European Hero in 2003), is impressed: "I spent my life fighting for these laws and suddenly they are on the books." She adds, however, that changing the law is not enough: they must now be implemented.
The changes are most pronounced in the troubled southeast. Kurds who were once jailed for listening to Kurdish songs can now attend Kurdish language courses and watch Kurdish TV. Turkish security forces have limited their crackdown after Kurdish militants called off a cease-fire in June. And the promise of democratic reform has helped undermine the rebels' justification for violence. "Turkey has made more progress in the past two years than in its 80-year history," argues Selahattin Demirtas, head of the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, which in the past has sharply criticized government abuses.
It's ironic that these successes are thanks largely to the efforts of a conservative, pro-Islamic government. Erdogan was jailed in 1998 for violating Turkey's ban on the mixing of religion with politics he recited a poem that compared minarets to bayonets but it was that experience, aides say, that convinced him that his party's political survival depended on European guarantees of freedom of expression. As a conservative Muslim, he was well placed to bring traditionalists with him, notes a Turkish diplomat: "It was Nixon who went to China."
Rapid reform, however, has done little to impress the opponents of Turkish accession, who focus on emotionally powerful issues like Europe's historically Chris-tian identity. In the latest French poll, 56% of respondents say they oppose Turkish accession "in principle." But in the same poll, 63% said that they could "imagine" Turkey entering if the right reforms were carried out which is exactly what the E.U. is now requiring of Turkey. Elsewhere, opposition to Turkish entry remains high. In the Netherlands, 41% are against while 21% are in favor; in Germany, the figures are 46% and 45%. In a new TIME/CNN poll, 52% of those surveyed in Britain, France and Germany say they oppose Turkish entry, while 39% favor it. Turkey in the E.U.? Dutch M.P. Geert Wilders says simply: "Never! Turkey is an Islamic country and doesn't belong in the E.U. I'd sooner let Australia or Canada join."
What opponents are not talking about are the consequences if the E.U. says no. Reform could come to an end as the unity inspired by the membership drive evaporates. Some fear radical elements throughout the Middle East would take the rejection as proof that the West doesn't want to co-exist with Islam. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, David Phillips of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations warns that a no would turn Turkey into "a hotbed of anti-Americanism and extremism" while a yes would raise "a firewall against terrorism." That may be overstating the case, but the past two years have demonstrated convincingly that the promise of partnership with the West is a powerful and peaceful inducement for democratic change in an Islamic country. That's a rare accomplishment in today's world. It would be rarer still if it lasts.