When the European Commission announced in October 2004 that Turkey had met the criteria for starting membership negotiations, it became front-page news worldwide. Turkey attracted international attention because of its geo-strategic importance, and because it is the first Muslim-majority EU candidate.
Over the previous five years, Turkey has made spectacular progress in strengthening its democratic institutions, significantly separating the military from politics, lifting restrictions on minority rights and abolishing emergency courts. Many of these reforms could not have been imagined, let alone implemented, a few years earlier. As Ziya Önis, professor of international relations at Koc University in Istanbul, noted, "A tide of reforms were initiated, which the powerful 'anti-EU coalition’ in Turkey found it progressively more difficult to resist."
Reforms extended in many directions. A new Penal Code, established in 2004, treats female sexuality for the first time as a matter of individual right, rather than family honour. Amendments to the Turkish Constitution oblige the Turkish state to take all necessary measures to promote gender equality. Family courts were established, employment laws amended and new programmes created to tackle domestic violence and improve access to education for girls. These are the most radical changes to the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years.
In hindsight, it is hard to remember just how big the normative gap had been separating Turkey and EU member states as late as 1999. The European Commission noted in a 1999 report on Turkey: "There are serious shortcomings in terms of human rights and protection of minorities. Torture is not systematic, but it is still widespread, and freedom of expression is regularly restricted by the authorities."
Between 1991 and 1994 thousands of claims of torture were submitted to human rights organisations, thousands of mystery killings took place and, by spring 1996, some 3,000 villages had been razed to the ground in southeast Anatolia as the state battled the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). National politics, to a large extent, had been hijacked by an opaque and unaccountable "deep state", which was justified by a perceived need to fight Turkey's enemies, particularly the PKK.
And despite concerns about reforms slowing down, the year 2009 has seen a new series of initiatives, including a political opening towards Turkey's Kurdish minority and a limitation of the powers of military courts, all of which raise the question: Why, in light of the success of EU soft power, are so many European countries still voicing concerns about Turkey joining the EU?
There is no simple answer. In the spring 2006 bi-annual Eurobarometer polls–which produce reports on public opinion across Europe on EU-related issues–69 per cent of those polled in Germany said they opposed Turkey joining the union. This put Germany level with Luxembourg and second only to Austria (81 per cent opposed). Meanwhile in France, the majority of political elites fear the size of Turkey and the impact it would have on the institutional machinery of the EU.
Despite these sceptical countries, however, a clear majority of EU member states support eventual Turkish accession to the EU. For all the problems and the slow pace, so far nobody has tried to derail the process as such. This in itself is a remarkable indicator, given popular resistance to Turkish accession, especially in Germany, France, Austria and Cyprus.
US President Barack Obama, in addressing the Turkish Parliament on 6 April, argued, "Turkey's greatness lies in [its] ability to be at the centre of things. This is not where East and West divide–it is where they come together." As Turkey continues to pursue reforms, it will continue to undermine the case of those who believe that it can never truly change.
For now, the ball remains in Turkey's court as the government sets out to tackle a number of important issues: from improving the social, not just legal, status of Turkish women to tackling the problems facing different minorities; from moving towards EU environmental standards to putting the Turkish armed forces under civilian control.
It is easy to be pessimistic, but a look at how far Turkey has come since 1999 gives rise to at least cautious optimism that the great story of Turkey's "Europeanisation" will continue.
* Gerald Knaus is founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI, www.esiweb.org) and fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. This article is part of a series on analysing Western policies in the Muslim world written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).