It is the not the only one, however. Issues of free speech (the case against Turkish author and recent Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for declaring "30000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it" was only dropped in January on a technicality) would be resolved as Turkey accepted and absorbed European norms and the acquis communautaire. Of greater import are the noises which periodically emanate from European capitals expressing doubt over Turkey's suitability as a member of the EU, and the souring of public opinion (both in the EU and Turkey itself) against any eventual accession. To have doubts over specific issues of compatibility is of course legitimate, responsible and healthy. But to declare, as the Bavarian minister-president Edmund Stoiber did last week, that "Turkey is not a European state", and to thus dismiss its bid for full membership on the grounds of its supposed 'extra-European' culture or geography, is both vacuous and naive.
What is Europe? It is an idea with competing and contested definitions. The European football’s governing body UEFA's competence has extended to Israel since 1994 and Kazakhstan since 2002. Morocco, as a member of the European Broadcasting Union, was able to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest as long ago as 1980, while Armenia first took part only this year. One oft-cited geographic definition bounds Europe by the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, the Mediterranean, Caspian and Black Seas, and the Ural and Caucasian Mountains. But to define the 'European' in the 'European Union' in terms of such raw geography would be to ignore French, Spanish and Portuguese territories across the globe as well as those countries within 'Europe' which wish to remain beyond the EU, and grant undue weight to the historical but false ascription of 'continent' to what is merely a peninsula of a greater and much more clearly defined Eurasian or even Africa-Eurasian land mass. Cultural definitions are even more diffuse. One cannot delineate a 'European' culture that does not transude into other continents and countries: the UK has much more in common with liberal America than, say, Bulgaria. One could talk of a 'common heritage', but European history has been played out on a global stage since the renaissance, and the Mediterranean has been more often a naval highway of integration than a barrier - the writ of Rome ran to North Africa in the 2nd century BC as in the 20th AD. Of course, North Africa has, since the fall of Byzantine Carthage in 698, been a land of Islam, and the former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, famously once described the EU as a "Christian club". Yet to exclude the non-Christian world would omit Bosnia and Albania, mainly Muslim countries at the heart of the Balkans, and ignore the 15 million Muslims who already reside within the EU.
Article O of the Treaty on European Union (or Maastricht Treaty) stipulates that "Any European State may apply to become a member of the Union", without giving any clearer indication of how to define the key term 'European'. In practice, however, this has been worked out on a case by case basis by the European Council. In 1987 Morocco applied to join the then Communities, but was rejected on the grounds that it was not a European State. It has also been suggested that Israel too is not 'European' enough for full membership. Turkey, by contrast, has been promised the prospect of eventual accession since the Association Agreement it signed with the Communities in 1963, and has since had its eligibility confirmed by the European Parliament, Council and Commission. Yet 97% of Turkey lies beyond the Bosporus in Asia; the term 'European State' is above all a criterion based upon political assessment.
It is thus obtuse to cling to a geographical definition of 'Europe' when discussing the EU. If we turn to the 'Copenhagen criteria' drawn up a year after Maastricht, we find no mention of geography or culture. The key section of the Copenhagen Presidency's conclusions reads:
"Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and, protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union."
This, along with the acceptance of the acquis communautaire, is the only meaningful definition of 'European' the EU needs. If Turkey, or Morocco, or indeed any other state beyond the EU wishes to embrace 'Europe' - i.e. democratic institutions, the rule of law, human rights and a robust market economy - there is no reason why the EU should not embrace such states in turn. It was after all the prospect of eventual EU membership that led the 8 former Communist countries which joined the bloc in 2004 to pursue the reforms and 'Europeanise' as they have. Why should geographical chauvinism deny others, from North Africa to Central Asia and beyond, the carrot of EU membership to encourage the adoption of 'European' rights and political and economic norms?
The issues currently holding up Turkish negotiations are not, at least officially, rooted in any supposed extra-European character - they result instead from the intractable fallout of the partition of Cyprus. It is to be hoped, nevertheless, that European capitals do not seek to exploit the hiatus to dash Turkey's hopes of accession, in order to protect spurious notions of the idea of Europe.