The European Union, heading into a new year almost exclusively preoccupied with shaky economies in its midst and the fate of the euro, has effectively sidelined the already dwindling Turkish hopes of membership any time soon. The disconnect in the Brussels mindset is puzzling. If Europe’s single most pressing social concern now is the integration — or not—of its growing Muslim populations, nothing would seem to be smarter or more timely than positive gestures towards Turkey, potentially the EU’s first Muslim-majority member.

Turkey, with 77 million people, is also far from being an economic basket case, certainly compared with a few European nations now dragging the region down. It has largely weathered the global recession with periods of strong growth last year as it builds electronic and auto industries. (Think India without the astronomical Indian poverty rate or lagging health and education standards.) Constitutional amendments were approved last year by Turkish voters to strengthen democracy and subject the military to civilian justice. None of this seems to have caught Europe’s attention enough to speed up full integration of Turkey.

Turkey is not alone in feeling a European chill. Among the Muslim Bosniaks, there are suspicions that Europe’s reluctance to lean harder on the Bosnian Serbs who have carved out a virtually autonomous state-within-a-state from which they can hold up actions by the Bosniak-Croat-Serb tripartite presidency or legislature.  That the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot yet function as a collective whole has a lot to do with animosity toward or fear of Islam, both by ethnic Serbs and members of the EU, which assign a “high representative” to Bosnia-Herzogovina, who has often worked hard to temper Serb opinion.

 In Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina’s weak national capital, critical government programs are languishing including on human rights and accountability for atrocities committed from 1992 to 1995, many if not most of them by ethnic Serbs, who maintained well documented rape camps where Bosniak women were abused and who massacred thousands of Bosniak men and boys. The Bosnian Serb republic (distinct from the neighboring nation of Serbia) created by the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which left a fault line between Bosnian Serb communities and the Bosniak-Croat federation. The result has been segregated education systems, mutually hostile media camps and competing truths about the war fought nearly two decades ago.

Muslim nations see a vacuum in Bosnia and are moving in to fill it, led by Turkey. Iran and Libya, among others, have also stepped up their presence with aid, the opening of cultural centers, support for mosques and links to the wider Islamic world.

The spread of Islamic militancy is not the major issue – at least not yet, despite what some northern Europeans and Americans fear, based on reports of Islamic religious schools springing up in the Bosnian countryside. Rather the increased activity in Bosnia by Muslim-majority nations appears to be a reflection of the desire, particularly of Turkey, to expand its sphere of influence in one corner of Europe while also buttressing a small nation that was once part of the Ottoman Empire and has had a Muslim majority for centuries. Turkey has been following similar policies in Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations for some time, officially and unofficially.

 A few years ago, on a visit to Istanbul and Ankara with a group from the Foreign Policy Association, I learned heard from business leaders and economists that Turkish truck drivers, construction workers and other civilians heavily involved in the risky business of gaining a foothold in the Iraqi economy, were suffering casualties in the US war second only to those of the Americans. A high-ranking government official, explaining that Turkey had to look east, given European unwillingness to open its door, said that Turkey would not stand by and let its fate be decided “on the streets of Paris.” President Nicolas Sarkozy is adamantly opposed to Turkish membership and would carry the country, wary of French Muslims, with him.

The EU does not have a great record in managing enlargement. It allowed Greece full membership in 1981 when economic warning signs were already in plain view. (Spain and Portugal, now also in economic trouble, were admitted five years later.) It should not have been surprising that Greece sooner or later would trigger a continent-wide financial crisis, which happened as the Greek government admitted it had falsified economic statistics over the years. That left the current socialist prime minister, George Papandreou, is a position not unlike that of Barack Obama, saddled with the legacy of an irresponsible, profligate right-wing predecessor administration.

In 2004, EU compounded the Greek problem politically by accepting Cyprus as a member – but only Greek Cypriot part of the island, leaving the ethnic Turkish north (bolstered by Turkish troops) in limbo. Kofi Annan, as secretary-general of the United Nations, had worked long and hard to bring the two sides into a semblance of union, but was rebuffed when the Greek Cypriots voted no in UN-sponsored referendum that the Cypriot Turks approved. Greece and the Greek Cypriots, demanding concessions from Turkey, got a new club to hold over Ankara in talks about Turkey’s EU membership.

Greece protects its special interests beyond the EU. At the UN, Greece has forbidden the new nation of Macedonia to use that name. Athens argues that the word Macedonia is trademarked by a region of Greece, leaving Macedonia forced to call itself FYROM – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Absurd as the dispute is, it has been the subject of UN negotiations for years.

In the same year that Cyprus became an EU member, there was a rush to admit a collection of eastern European and Baltic nations — the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia — as well as Malta. A few of these countries brought with them more economic weak spots, reputations for pervasive corruption and in some cases a thriving industry in people smuggling and other transnational crimes.  

All of this is, of course, only distracts attention from the larger and most significant issue of Turkey’s place in Europe. In a report published in December, the Brussels center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace laid out in detail exactly how deep the freeze was on Turkey’s EU membership bid. Thirty-five outstanding topics (called “chapters”) in an EU-Turkish work plan remain to be resolved, according to the report, “The Way Forward for Turkey and the EU,” by Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels, and Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.

About half of those 35 chapters are stalled, the Carnegie report says. To open any one of them for further talks requires the consent of all 27 EU members, and even the least important among them holds a veto. Greek Cypriot Cyprus, for example, has blocked discussion on a timely provision to make Turkey a partner in talks on European energy supplies. Cyprus is also holding up negotiations with Turkey over fundamental rights and judicial questions, about which the Turks take a lot of criticism and need to be brought into more intensive discussions.

The Carnegie report argues that regular dialogue should be opened or enhanced between EU officials and Turkey at all levels so that a working atmosphere can develop, or build on what Ankara once saw as a “common destiny” with Europe.

 “If the accession process stalls completely and the relationship sours further, the more nationalistic forces in Ankara will be tempted to turn Turkey against EU positions and interests,” the report says. What could be lost is Turkey’s nascent role as a diplomatic player in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as between Bosnia and neighboring Serbia, which is also seeking EU membership.

Past performance and present resistance to cultural, ethnic and religious integration in major European nations do not bode well for Turkey, though the United States still strongly supports its bid for EU membership. In Europe, the political will to bridge to gap with Turkey is in very short supply.