European leaders had agreed in 1999 that Turkey's undeniable progress in human rights and democracy ought to be rewarded with formal talks on full membership. Washington was cheering in the background, arguing that the acceptance of an overwhelmingly Muslim country, long a bulwark of NATO, into the EU would show other predominately Muslim states the benefits of reform and democracy.
Since then, however, it has become increasingly obvious that a majority of European voters oppose Turkey's membership. For many, the fact that Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country conflicts with their belief that Europe's common values are based on post-Enlightenment Christianity. For others, the fact that Turkey borders on trouble zones of Iraq and Syria would expose the EU to military threats it is reluctant to face. Also, Turkey could join as the largest member of the EU, with a projected population in 2015 of 79 million people, many of them relatively poor.
Nowhere in the EU is rejection of Turkish membership as strong as it is in Austria, where polls find between 80 and 90% of voters opposed. An incendiary campaign by the far-right Freedom Party played a role in stoking that opposition, as did atavistic memories of the Ottoman Turk army at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The Austrian government channeled that sentiment by opposing the idea that the talks, expected to last at least nine years, would be premised on the "shared objective" of "accession." Vienna wanted language that could have allowed talks to end in something less than full membership for Turkey, "a privileged partnership," for instance. But after holding that line through a marathon meeting on Sunday (EU decisions on enlargement require unanimity), Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik finally gave in on Monday to pressure from her 24 EU counterparts and from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Despite losing the battle, those opposed to Turkey's membership may yet win the war. The likely next German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has long argued for something short of full membership for Turkey. And French president Jacques Chirac, who says he favors Turkish membership, has pressed through a constitutional amendment demanding a referendum in France to approve any new member of the EU. An editorial in Germany's centrist Sueddeutsche Zeitung sensed a whiff of hypocrisy in the pressure on Austria to kick the ball forward again. "The Austrian government deserves merit for speaking openly what a majority of the citizens think: that a promise of accession will not be made good," the paper wrote. Maybe not, but much can change in ten years, and now, at least, the talks are open.