Europe Must Clutch the Cloak of History ; Turkey Should Be in the European Union Precisely Because It Is a Liberal, Modernising Country of Muslims

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The vote this week of the European Parliament in favour of starting membership talks with Turkey should presage a decision by the EU leaders today to start the whole process rolling.

One says "should" partly because one can never be quite certain in Europe that its leaders will do what is required of them - witness the extraordinary about-turns over the European constitution and the rows over keeping to the rules of the stability pact. The major players, including President Chirac, with important caveats, and Chancellor Schroder and Prime Minister Tony Blair, more enthusiastically, have all said that they will give it the green light.

But there's a lot of bad politics about the Turkish application at the moment, especially in Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands where the right-wing anti-immigration parties are rearing their head. Even Chirac has had to promise a referendum to let the French people decide when negotiations finally come to fruition.

Such hesitations are understandable, but miss the urgency and importance of the moment. To say no at this stage, or to fob Turkey off with a "country membership" or something less than full conjunction would be an act of religious prejudice and historic recidivism of the worst and most parochial sort. Europe has an opportunity to reach out to a whole new world of a bigger, wider and more diverse Europe.

All the objections and the last-minute hurdles being put forward against Turkey - the demands that it admit to the Armenian genocide, the imposition of additional rules on labour movement, the proposal for a "privileged partnership" instead of membership - are little more than masks for a much more fundamental fear and dislike, and that is of Turkey as a Muslim state. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, the world's favourite French politician, has made some deeply dispiriting remarks about non-Catholics. If anything, Europe should be wanting Turkey in precisely because it is a liberal, modernising country of Muslims (officially it is still a secular state, although it is now headed by an Islamic party).

In that sense Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minster, is quite right to insist, as he did in The Independent earlier this week, that Turkey will not accept second-best, special requirements, lesser membership or anything other than the straight road to membership that every other country has followed. Anything less would be an insult, not least to all those in Turkey which have pushed, harried and argued for the huge changes that have been needed to get Turkey to this point of even beginning serious negotiations,

Of course Turkey has a long way to go. Anyone who knows Turkey also knows how very far it is from properly integrating its Kurdish minority, accepting even a minimum standard for its workers and instituting the kind of law that would bring it into line with Western Europe. We are not talking here of a neat homogenous country like Sweden, but a largely Islamic nation developed through four centuries of empire and then dramatically wrenched away from imperial habit to modern national state by Ataturk after the First World War.

The benefit of that change is to produce a formally secular state which, at least among the elite, feels its future looking westwards and its place in Europe. The price has been a state that is fiercely nationalistic, with an army at the centre of its constitution and an attitude to its Kurdish minority and to human rights that has more in common with Moscow than Brussels.

Far from that being a bar to full membership, however, it is the very reason we should be insisting on it. Joining Europe brings with it stringent obligations in a whole host of fields, from equal opportunities to civil rights and financial disciplines. …