EU Talks End a Dangerous Deadlock

ISTANBUL -- If Europe had shut the door on Muslim Turkey's dreams for membership in the European Union, nationalism and distrust of the West would have skyrocketed, making relations with the West more difficult and undermining hopes of using Turkey as a bridge between East and West.

Rejection threatened to alienate the only Muslim EU candidate country and destabilize the Turkish government, which has staked its future on building ties with the West. Turkey neighbors Iraq and Iran and U.S. officials regard Turkish stability as critical.

Those crucial issues helped push the European Union to offer Turkey the chance for membership and have led the United States to strongly back its candidacy. Washington has also showcased Turkey as an example of a Muslim country that is not only pro-Western but also secular and democratic.

For months, Turkey had been scheduled to open accession talks on Monday, but those talks were delayed after Austria -- where some 90 percent of the population opposes letting in Turkey -- balked at starting talks, leading to angry responses from Turkish leaders.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed that deadlock in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a sign of the importance that the United States attaches to the Turkish bid.

Britain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, has repeatedly stressed the strategic importance of allowing in Muslim Turkey.

Erdogan warned last weekend that European leaders should accept Turkey or the EU would "end up a Christian club."

Countries that "cannot accept Turkey in the EU are those who oppose an alliance of civilizations," Erdogan said earlier.

It is a refrain that Turkey keeps repeating as it tries to assuage European concerns about accepting a huge, poor country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.

But as European reservations against letting in Turkey increase, Turkish leaders are also getting angry and affection for Europe among the Turkish press and public is decreasing, with many accusing the EU of discrimination or outright racism.

Nationalism in Turkey is already rising, in part sparked by what many Turks see as Europe's humiliation of a Turkey that keeps trying to meet an ever-changing set of conditions.

"Prime minister, the concessions that you have given the EU are dragging Turkey toward darkness," said Devlet Bahceli, a former deputy prime minister. "Don't allow them to put any more heavy conditions in front of us. ... Reject those [membership] talks!"

If Turkey dropped its EU bid, it would have to look for allies elsewhere, such as Russia or Islamic countries.

"The Islamic world will also be watching the European Union decision and they will also be disappointed" if the answer is no, said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University. "The loser will be more the European Union than Turkey."