Paris, France (CNSNews.com) - The question of whether Turkey, a Muslim country and U.S. ally straddling Europe and Asia, should become a member of the European Union has dominated a French-German summit in Berlin.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Jacques Chirac were joined Tuesday by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for the signing of a multi-billion dollar Airbus contract for Turkish Airlines. They also continued negotiations on Turkey's application to join the 25-nation bloc.
The French and German governments have both come out in favor of Turkey's membership in the E.U., although polls indicate that a majority of citizens in the two countries opposes it.
In a recent Ipsos poll for the newspaper Le Figaro, 56 percent of French respondents said they were opposed to Turkey joining the E.U.
The main reason given was fear that cheap labor from Turkey, a country with a still underdeveloped economy, would increase unemployment in France.
Europeans have also voiced concern that Turkish membership would take the Muslim population in traditionally Christian Europe to 20 percent.
Another objection often brought up is that most of Turkey is situated geographically in Asia rather than Europe.
Crucially, the question of Turkey's admission to the E.U. has put the issue of a united Europe's political power - as measured against America as a world power - onto the agenda.
Some in Europe suspect that the U.S. wants its large ally to be a member of the bloc, to slow down the development of a strong entity that could challenge Washington as a superpower.
Supporters of Turkey's bid argue that, by welcoming Turkish Muslims, Europe would lay a bridge between Islam and Christianity and stem the tide of Muslim fundamentalism.
In France, members of Chirac's party and opposition politicians have come down on both sides of the debate, and the president has agreed to hold a referendum on the subject.
A Europe that includes Turkey could not be the long-planned, powerful federal political force, speaking with a united voice based on its shared heritage, according to Maxime Lefebvre, a European Affairs analyst at the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris.
"Turkey doesn't have the same history and culture as the countries in the Union and its membership would put an end to the project of a federal Europe, the way the founding members imagined it," he said.
On the other hand, one could imagine a different sort of Europe, including Turkey - "an enlarged Europe, oriented to the West, democratic, a sort of regional mini-U.N.."
That type of Europe could play a stabilizing role through its foreign and defense policy, and would also bridge the gap between Europe and the Muslim world, Lefebvre said.
This would also be convenient for America, he added, because Europe could then play a complementary role to the U.S.
"If Europe is not politically united, it does not have the means to develop a foreign policy of its own, different from [that of] the U.S.," said Lefebvre. "And so Europe's policies would have to be compatible with American policy."
For now, many European politicians caution that it is too early to say what shape transatlantic relations would take, should the E.U. include Turkey.
According to the estimate of the E.U.'s executive Commission (E.C.), negotiations for Ankara's membership are expected to take at least 10 years, and countries such as France are likely to delay the process even longer.
To comply with membership requirements, Turkey still has to transform into a market economy that can work in Europe's single market.
Simply to be accepted as a candidate for admission, Turkey has already passed reform packages to meet Europe's political requirements on democracy, human rights and justice.
The reforms included reducing military power, abolishing the death penalty and banning torture in prisons.
In a last-minute concession to E.U., Turkey dropped a clause criminalizing adultery when it passed a reform bill bringing its penal system in line with European human rights policies.
Turkey has said since the 1960s that it wishes to be part of Europe, but its application for membership was finally considered by the E.U. only in 1999.
Earlier this month, the E.C. recommended that negotiations should begin, a decision that the 25 heads of state still have to approve when they meet on December 17 in Brussels.
On Tuesday, Turkey gained one more supporter in its bid for membership. Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, praised Turkey as a secular democracy where people of different religions and cultures can live together.
He said its membership application was an "extraordinary opportunity" for Europe.
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