Wariness over Turkey's EU Bid ; but Wednesday, the European Commission Is Expected to Recommend That Turkey Begin Membership Process

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As the European Union approaches a contentious decision - whether to let Turkey join the club - the Continent's rulers seem to have left their citizens behind.

The European Commission is expected to recommend Wednesday that Turkey be invited to negotiate its membership in the union, 42 years after Ankara first applied.

But almost everywhere across Europe, the public is opposed to EU membership for Turkey. There is a widespread feeling that Turkey is too big, too poor, too distant - and, perhaps most salient, too Muslim to make a proper member of the European Union.

Proponents of the idea say that voters will catch up to their leaders by the time Turkey has finished negotiating the terms of its entry into the EU, which won't be for another 10 to 15 years.

"Popular hostility is a question of ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding", says Albert Rohan, a former top Austrian diplomat who joined a blue-ribbon Independent Commission on Turkey, which last month urged talks with Turkey.

That hostility is real, however, and "we cannot afford to ignore public opinion, leaving European construction to the diplomats," argued Franz Fischler, the EU's agriculture commissioner, in a recent letter to his fellow commissioners. A recent poll found 56 percent of the French opposed to Turkish accession, compared to 36 percent in favor.

Those figures appear to jibe with feelings elsewhere in Europe: the last EU-wide poll on the subject, two years ago, found 49 percent of Europeans against, and 32 percent for, Turkish aspirations.

Among the French, the biggest worry was that migrant Turkish workers would flood Europe. To meet that fear, the Commission was expected to suggest limits to Turks' freedom of movement within the EU - restrictions that apply to no other member state.

Behind most people's misgivings, says Francois Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, lies religion. "It is more or less spoken or more or less hidden, but the major component in popular rejection of Turkey's admission is Islam," he argues.

Some public figures have the same reservations.. The Wall Street Journal recorded French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as pondering whether "we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism."

The EU commissioner for internal markets, Fritz Bolkestein, worried that Turkey's entry, which would bring 82 million Muslims into the club, could lead to the Islamization of Europe.

Such an outcome, he said in a speech last month, would mean "the deliverance of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain," referring to a Catholic Polish army's defeat of the Turkish army outside Vienna more than 300 years ago.

Supporters say that welcoming Turkey into the EU would offer an important example of a modern, democratic Muslim country respecting human rights, which could help take the sting out of a potential "clash of civilizations."

"We all say we want to support democracy in the Muslim and Arab world, and here we have a chance to do that," says Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner for humanitarian affairs. …