For a moment last week, Europe stretched over the Bosporus and into Asia Minor. The leaders of the European Union meeting in Helsinki dispatched their newly minted foreign policy czar, Javier Solana, on an important mission to the Turkish capital, Ankara. The former NATO Secretary-General flew from the Finnish capital on Friday entrusted with the sensitive task of persuading the Turkish government to accept what is purported to be the last best offer to become a formal candidate for membership in the rich and exclusive club of Europe.
It was not an easy task. Turkey, spurned as a candidate at another European Council meeting two years ago, had reacted coolly to last week's offer from Helsinki because it seemed to favor Greek positions on Cyprus and other territorial disputes in the Aegean. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer insisted that the deal Turkey got this time was a clear signal that it would be treated like any other candidate. And when Solana returned to Helsinki on Saturday, in the company of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, he brought with him the historic prospect that in time--perhaps as long as a generation--the E.U. might challenge the geographical divide itself by including a vast country that has always been reckoned to belong more to Asia than to Europe. Turkey harbors no illusions that the far more difficult task of transforming itself to qualify for full-fledged membership is bound to succeed--but at least now it is in the realm of the possible.
The summit also confirmed the candidacy of six additional states--Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia--for whom the prospect of membership is more concrete: accession negotiations with them will begin in early 2000. They now join the six existing candidates (the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia) in the "regatta" toward the finish line of E.U. membership. The member states vowed to streamline the Union's institutions and procedures to accommodate new members by the end of 2002. But when after that the first member is inducted--and which countries will be in the first group--will depend on how well the candidates retool themselves to meet Brussels' exacting specifications governing everything from child care to trademark protection.
After watching the often contentious proceedings in Helsinki, the prospective members might be forgiven for wondering just what sort of club they would be joining. On the eve of the conclave France announced that in spite of numerous concessions and a direct order from the Commission, it still had no intention of lifting its ban on British beef. Britain in turn stood firm against a proposal that would force member states to withhold taxes on savings income or share information so savers could be taxed at home. Though the issue seems dead for now, Frits Bolkestein, Commissioner for internal markets, predicted it might experience "a Lazarus-like resurrection" in the months to come.
The leaders were, however, unanimous in their condemnation of Russia's brutal military action in Chechnya, and resolved to cut the E.U.'s $175 million in annual aid to Russia, limiting contributions to promoting democracy, human rights and nuclear safety. And stung by their inability to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo without the military assistance of the U.S., they also agreed to create by 2003 a rapid deployment force of up to 60,000 troops. Making good on that and the other promises of Helsinki will demand plenty of cash and political will, but at least Europe enters the new millennium with suitably lofty ambitions.