Brussels has fixed a spotlight on Ankara this week, as the Turkish parliament looked to amend the country's 78-year-old penal code. Attention was drawn by a rancorous debate over a controversial government-sponsored amendment to the code which would have criminalised adultery. The debate provided opponents of Turkish European Union accession with further ammunition to question Turkey's Western and secular credentials and drew sharp criticism from EU officials. With the pressure on, the government backed down at the last minute, withdrawing the controversial amendment.
The timing of the amendment was always questionable, the more so as it coincided with a visit to Turkey by the EU commissioner for enlargement, Gunther Verheugen. Touring the country's south-east, he stressed that amending the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) to make adultery punishable by law might give the impression that Islamic law, or sharia, was being introduced into the Turkish legal system.
The clear message was that the adoption of measures deemed to be illiberal by other European countries could conceivably jeopardise the start of talks on accession between Turkey and the EU scheduled for the end of this year. With its steadfast commitment to Europe, the conservative ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had advanced the amendment, was clearly placed in a tricky position. AKP leaders had also earlier voiced protests at EU pressure over the issue and had declared that the adultery amendment had the support of the vast majority of Turks.
Yet just hours before the issue was due to come to a vote at parliament - recalled specially to pass the TCK amendments - the government backed off. A meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal on September 14 arranged that all amendment proposals to the TCK would have to be jointly approved. While initially ambivalent on the issue, after protests from its own members the CHP leadership came out in opposition to the adultery amendment. This meant that the adultery bill could not be put forward, despite the AKP's two-thirds majority in parliament.
The path was then also clear for the new TCK to be approved, passing into law a raft of new legislation that instead considerably advances the legal status of women - who were likely to be the chief victims of the adultery amendment. Stiffer punishments for "honour killings" have been included, as well as acknowledgement of rape within marriage. The whole package of amendments was set to be through parliament by September 17.
A question mark still remains though over the AKP's motivation in introducing the amendment in the first place. Officials described it as a move to protect the family unit, whilst enhancing the power of women to keep their straying husbands on a tight leash. However, others saw it as an attempt to curry favour with the AKP's conservative and Islamist constituents, while also appealing to a perceived majority view among the population at large.
Whatever the case, the debate was certainly used to reinforce the case of those who oppose Turkish accession to the EU. Single market commissioner Frits Bolkestein warned of a possible "Islamisation" and "implosion" of Europe should 70m Turks join the Christian club. Though farfetched to some, such concerns ring true for many Europeans. Franz Fischler, the EU agricultural commissioner, also chose the occasion to question Turkey's commitment to democratic reform. His contention that Turkish membership would cost 11.3bn euros a year in agricultural subsidies did not fall on deaf ears either.
Given such claims, it is little surprise that popular support for Turkish accession to the EU remains modest in Europe. According to a recent survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund, only 16% of the French, 26% of Germans and 33% of the British support Turkey's EU ambitions. The French daily Le Monde additionally reported recently that Austria, Portugal, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are against the start of full membership negotiations.
Some of Europe's citizens also remain weary of further EU expansion following the absorption of another 10 new members in May 2004.
Yet the successful political integration of the new member states could eventually count in Turkey's favour, with the new countries and prospective new members such as Bulgaria and Romania in favour of Turkey's membership.
At the same time, many Europeans remain undecided on the issue of Turkish membership, with the recent poll showing as much as 40% of the EU population sitting on the fence.
Meanwhile, though hobbled by domestic opposition, powerful voices in Europe remain on side. Resistance from the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) in Germany and the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in France has not deterred Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder or President Jacques Chirac from maintaining their commitment to Turkish accession.
Geopolitical interests have featured strongly in this regard.
"If Turkish modernisation on the EU basis succeeds," Gernot Erler, deputy head of the Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) recently declared, "it would provide a model for the Arab countries and that would contribute to the prevention of conflict among cultures."
Turkey's experience in dealing with Iraq, Syria and Iran could also prove essential to a Europe that remains incredibly jittery about the Arab world.
Signals from Brussels have thus been largely positive regarding Turkey's EU prospects. While the question of human rights, the development of the south-east and Cyprus will be closely watched, Turkish progress has received genuine applause.
The question though is whether Europe can ultimately overcome fears regarding Turkey's Muslim identity, large population and poorer economy. While debate in Europe intensifies, Ankara should try to avoid drawing negative attention over such issues as adultery. Turkey, after all, is not yet married to Europe.