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Turk Push to Join Europe Now Tests Key US Alliance

Weekend decision by EU may alter Turkey's role as a bridge between Islamic world and West.

The future of Turkey's relations with Europe, and consequently with the United States, largely depends on a decision that the leaders of 15 member-countries of the European Union (EU) will make at a two-day conference opening today in Luxembourg.

The decision will determine the status the EU wants to grant Turkey as part of a plan to open its doors to 10 Eastern and Central European countries as well as Cyprus.

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Turkey, a key NATO ally that was was one of the first countries to set up close ties with Europe - it signed an association treaty in 1963 - has sought membership for years.

Two years ago it concluded a temporary customs union that eased its trade with EU member states. That was thought to be paving the way for Turkey to become a full member.

Many Turks see membership as part of a vision of "Westernization" in line with the goals set by the secular republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk, seven decades ago.

"The EU is a symbol of the values the Turkish nation wants to share," says a Turkish analyst. "It's not simply an economic organization.... Turkey wants to be part of it to raise not only its economic level, but also its social and cultural standards."

But there are barriers. The EU has hesitated to admit Turkey because of Turkey's poor human rights record and over its failure to resolve the dispute over the island of Cyprus, as well as other differences with Greece, also a NATO member.

The Turks sense other undeclared reasons, however, such as religious and cultural differences and a concern that Europe would face a new flood of Turkish labor.

Turkey also insists on being admitted as an "equal candidate," and on being included in negotiations. Officials say they will stand firm.

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So far, Turkey is not among the "first wave" candidates, which include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovenia as well as Cyprus.

But, in a bid to placate Turkey, the ministers have suggested that it be among 12 candidates included in a "permanent conference" with EU members. The conference will be a forum to discuss issues from drug control to environmental protection. The ministers also suggested that Turkey be given special "rapprochment status."

Still, top Turkish officials complain they are not being judged solely on whether they are meeting criteria. Said a senior official: "What the EU ministers suggests amounts to keeping us in a separate waiting room. That's not what we deserve."

The Turks were angered earlier this year over a statement by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on "the gap in culture and civilization between Europe and Turkey," which enhanced a general feeling that the EU is a Christian club.

Refah, the embattled Islamist party, has used this as part of its anti-EU stand, drawing the conclusion that Turkey's place is in the Muslim East, not the Christian West.

But even Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, a staunch backer of EU membership, says Turkey can do without the EU. "Turkey has many options in its foreign relations," he says. "In case of a rejection ... the EU will be dropped from Turkey's agenda for good. The damage will be greater for the EU than for Turkey."

Western diplomats worry about how a rejected Turkey might react. Ankara has already warned it will take a harder line on Cyprus if the island - in practice, the Greek sector - is chosen over Turkey.

And British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook admitted recently that if the Turks are rejected, the chances of tackling the drug problem in Europe will lessen.

A representative of a European company hints at another concern if the Turks back away from the West. "This can affect economic interests with a country that represents a significant market of 60 million people," he says.

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