The Independent (London)
September 30, 2005, Friday


It didn't rate a mention in his speech to the Labour Party
conference, although it did produce an impassioned plea from his
Foreign Secretary in Brighton. But Turkey's application for
membership of the European Union is likely to be the first major test
of Tony Blair's presidency of the EU. And a crucial challenge to his
and Jack Straw's powers of persuasion.

The UK has always been strongly in favour of accession talks with
Turkey, and rightly so. If the Union is to keep expanding to its
geographic and historic shape, if it is to act as a catalyst for
democratic change in the surrounding regions, and if it is to prove a
means of bringing Islam into cohabitation with the Christian West,
then there could be no better candidate for inclusion than Turkey. It
straddles the straits between East and West, it has a strong secular
and pro-Western tradition dating from the time of Kemal Ataturk, it
has been a stalwart member of Nato alongside the Western European
countries, and it has made a clear policy decision and started on the
steps necessary to join the Union.

A year ago the road seemed fairly straight and even. The Commission
was in favour, most of the member states had expressed approval and,
with a final meeting of the EU foreign ministers next Monday, a start
to negotiations (expected to last 10 years, it should be added) would
be under way.

All that has now been jeopardised by growing dissension in the
European Parliament, the open opposition of Angela Merkel in Germany
and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and now the Austrian refusal to go
along with a vote in favour at the meeting of permanent
representatives of the member states this week. An emergency meeting
of foreign ministers has been called in Luxembourg on Sunday in a
last-ditch effort to save the talks.

Agreement will be far from easy. Quite aside from the thorny issues
of Turkish responsibility for the Armenian massacres and its refusal
to recognise Cyprus, there is Austria's last-minute demand that
Turkey be offered partnership rather than full membership " a
suggestion which Turkey indignantly and understandably refuses as
changing the rules of the game at the last moment.

The real worry is that time is slipping away from these talks.
Opposition to Turkish membership is building in the Union, while
nationalist antagonism to Europe's prevarications and changes of mind
is rising in Turkey. If negotiations are to proceed, then the
timetable has to be kept. If ever there was a time for Tony Blair to
exercise his undoubted skills of charm and persuasion, it is now.
Otherwise an historic opportunity may be lost, with incalculable
effect on future relations with the Muslim world.