Turkey is now, finally, negotiating with the European Commission the terms of its possible membership in the EU. But whether "possible" becomes "eventual" remains very much an open question. Indeed, completing the negotiations is likely to prove as difficult as the decision to start them.
Recall that Turkey made its first application to join in 1959, and that since 1963, the European Economic Community, the forerunner to today's EU, responded with a delaying tactic: a request for a customs agreement. At the same time, having never had to take "no" for an answer -- and after receiving a series of nods and winks that hinted that membership might one day come -- Turkey's expectation of eventual EU integration became increasingly palpable.
But ordinary Europeans have begun looking at maps, and the geography that they see cannot be denied: 95 percent of Turkey's territory and 80 percent of its population is in Asia.
As a result, the fierce and lively debate -- in Turkey and much more emphatically in the EU -- about whether Turkey really belongs to Europe has continued, despite the start of negotiations.
Of course, the question of Turkey's European identity cannot be answered with geography lessons. At least half of the body of Greek theater and philosophy was produced in Asia Minor. The first Christian evangelization trips of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were to Turkey. Later, Ottoman Turkey was for centuries considered a part of the "concert of Europe," proving indispensable in defining and securing the strategic balance among the European continent's Great Powers.
The turkish question
Yet this historical evidence is not enough to unite European sentiment in favor of Turkey's EU membership. On the contrary, "the Turkish Question" will be resolved on the basis of the current political preoccupations and concerns for the future.
Fortunately, that choice was not settled prematurely and peremptorily: the process that will lead to a final decision was merely allowed to start with the opening of negotiations.
Membership talks can't help but be long and arduous, if only because adopting the acquis communautaire (the body of EU law) requires that Turkey integrate around 10,000 pages of texts into its legislation. However, all this now seems to have a serious chance of succeeding.
And yet Turkey scares countless Europeans. With 67 million people today, and a population that will reach 80 million in 20 years and 100 million in 2050, Turkey is bound to become the most populous of all European nations. It is also a very poor Muslim country.
To be sure, a few countries in Europe, mainly Germany and Austria, have welcomed strong inflows of Turkish immigration. But the immigrants have been mostly poor peasants from Anatolia, whose integration has proven to be difficult. By contrast, Turkey's large, secular intellectual community, whose cultural background is European, and from which the Turkish state recruits most of its executives, has remained in Istanbul and Ankara.
Europe, then, is frightened by the prospect of more immigration by Turks who find it almost impossible to assimilate. For the moment, such immigration has almost stopped, owing to rapid economic growth -- indeed, the fastest in Europe -- in recent years, which is absorbing the country's available labor and has thus stemmed the flow of emigrants. Yet the fear remains that membership in the EU will unleash a new human tide.