Sitting Here in Limbo

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Since Turkey formally sought E.U. membership in 1987, the country has been caught in a kind of purgatory between admission to the club and permanent outcast status. Despite carrying out major political and economic reforms under pressure from Brussels, including the abolition of the death penalty and of restrictions on Kurdish-language broadcasting, the Turks' chances are slim of getting exactly what they want at the December E.U. summit in Copenhagen a firm date to start negotiations. For years, the E.U. has been smiling on the idea of Turkey's eventual admission while doing nothing to bring it about, because of opposition from members who feel the country just isn't European enough. That ambiguous stance has encouraged Turkey to reform. But, says Nathalie Tocci, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, "We're approaching a time when ambiguity could be destructive."

The Turks aren't blameless, having aimed high in seeking an unconditional date. "We need to do more than just go around in circles," says Oguz Demiralp, Turkey's ambassador to the E.U. But since the European Commission ruled in early October that Turkey still "doesn't fully meet the political criteria" for membership, E.U. diplomats predict their leaders will make any date conditional on Turkey's further progress in assuring fundamental rights and freedoms.

That political judgment will be influenced not only by the Nov. 3 elections, but also by Turkey's stance on negotiations to end 28 years of Greek-Turkish ethnic division on Cyprus. The island, partitioned by the U.N.-patrolled 'Green Line' since Turkey invaded the north in 1974, is sure to get the nod in Copenhagen to join the E.U. in 2004, whether or not Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and his Greek Cypriot counterpart, President Glafkos Clerides, can agree on some form of political union. The lure of E.U. membership was supposed to entice the rivals to cut a deal, and some voices from Turkey have been encouraging. But complications after Denktash's heart surgery have narrowed the chances of an accord before the Copenhagen summit.

The question of Turkey's membership goes to the heart of what the European Union is all about. The British argue alongside the U.S. that Europe's strategic interests will be served by assuring that Turkey continues to look West. Others, such as Martin Schulz, a senior German Social Democrat and Member of the European Parliament, say that letting in such a large, impoverished country with different cultural attributes will slow political integration "which is what the British want anyway," he says. A resolution is unlikely in Copenhagen, which means that Turkey's time in purgatory will continue.